Distance in time and space, its politics no longer hot-button, Nanking searingly speaks to yesterday’s and today’s wars while documenting one concrete brutality of seventy years ago.
Openly intended to be applicable to “incidents” past and present, Dan Sturman and co-producer Bill Guttentag’s hybrid concerns the six weeks of Japan’s lightning subjugation of China’s off-and-on and on-at-that-moment capital, since restyled Nanjing, and literal rape of that revered final resting place of Sun Yat-sen and of a helpless civilian population. Similar to Slaughterhouse-Five in revelation of a near unknown shame, the effort equally raises the point of individual action in crises. A tribute to a handful of racial and cultural foreigners and to the Chinese people, it is inspiring at the same time that, not much having changed, it can depress in the extreme.
Contrary to the post-Arthurian Romantic sway of war and warriors as chivalric, the Apocalyptic red horseman has inevitably descended to rapine and rape--Canaan, Troy and Carthage, Tenochtitlán, Scotland and Ireland, Africa repeatedly, Nam, and De Palma’s Redacted Iraq.
More than four years before Pearl Harbor, Tokyo overwhelmed Shanghai, coastal gateway to Nanking, a hundred-fifty miles inland. Routed defenders poured back as the Imperial Army then besieged the capital, breached its seventy-foot-high Ming Dynasty walls, and began forty days of absolute, unnecessary nightmare.
The 16 mm historical footage largely taken clandestinely by Rev. John G. Magee (Hugo Armstrong) with his negatives smuggled out by missionary George A. Fitch (John Getz), the fighting and subsequent bestial military abuse of civilians is aired publicly for the first time, although segments were shown on Capitol Hill prior to U.S. entry into World War II. Though not in extenuation of the world’s inaction, it is pointed out that neither people nor news was allowed to filter out, and though the 1946-48 Tokyo Tribunal condemned to death military and puppet-government leaders, the film implies that two hundred thousand executions and twenty thousand reported rapes were as much owing to laxity in discipline and commanders not wanting to know, or not caring, as to any master plan to demoralize via terror.
Such archival footage is, however, somewhat secondary to two controlling “interview” series, the speakers of both unusually well identified in repeated color titles. The first type includes real survivors of the events and a few invading soldiers contacted through a Japanese peace movement, along with some actors portraying others at that 1937-38 time. Especially wrenching to watch are two octogenarians, one a woman recounting her violation in front of her grandfather; and the other, longer, a man who cannot continue for emotion in recalling the bayoneting of his breast-feeding mother and infant brother.
Paralleling and in some way overshadowing this record of “Hell on Earth,” the second set of “interviews,” experimental and filmically less successful, concerns the question of a man or woman’s responsibility as a single person. Some few Western residents in the city -- missionaries and teachers, a businessman and a surgeon (Woody Harrelson as Bob Wilson, M.D.) -- chose to remain, at great personal risk, to create a theoretical Safety Zone which, short-lived, would harbor approximately two hundred thousand refugees.
Shot during two days in Los Angeles from rescued contemporary letters, diaries and memoranda, their stories are headshot-read on a bare stage by actors, in effect combining observations on events as they happened with moral reflections on duty, man and God. “Confident . . . though war should rise against me,” the readings are static and non-dramatic in context, and hindsight response to them will depend on, for example, reaction to the stiff faith-based courage of Magee and Christian college directress Minnie Vautrin (Mariel Hemingway) and to the even more polemical Siemens representative, John Rabe (Jürgen Prochnow), a Nazi Party member who wires Hitler for help, tops a bomb shelter with the swastika, and in German-clipped English affirms solidarity with local suffering while ignoring reality in the Fatherland.
Wearing on its sleeve the plea for men of good will to put an end to war, Nanking revisits a not-all-that-distant past to actualize it for, and thus comment on, our present. For all its post-Hiroshima pacifism, Japan officially still classifies this slaughter as an “incident” and suppresses striking companion pieces in Fumio Kemei’s 1938 and ’39 Toho Studios Shanghai and Fighting Soldier. Counter to man’s being condemned to repeat history, Nanking’s producer and driving force, AOL and sports executive Ted Leonsis, sets man to remember and thus accept responsibility today to change the present and future.
(Released by THINKFilm and rated "R" for disturbing images and descriptions of wartime atrocities.)