I have long been fascinated with World War II movies. Unlike literature, where the war didn’t lead to as many great works as one might think, there are an amazing number of astounding World War II movies. Some were made at the time, some after the war. It coincided with probably the greatest period of film history, when not only was the American film industry at a peak, but so was that of France, Italy, and Japan. Plus you had at least some quality work coming out of England, Poland, the Soviet Union and eventually, after reconstruction, West Germany. So while not every player in World War II was making great films about the experience, a whole lot were.
While many of these films are famous, some are totally unseen today. Awhile back, I subscribed to Filmstruck, which is just a great repository of film for streaming. Connected to the Criterion Collection and TCM and now Warner, this is simply infinitely better than Netflix, unless you are into crappy pastiche shows. I was browsing and I saw Hideo Sekigawa’s 1953 film Hiroshima, about the immediate aftermath of the bombing. I was like, wow, I have never even heard of this. Then I went to IMDB. I always rate my movies. You can see how many people have rated the films. Here are some recent films I have watched and the number of ratings:
The Burmese Harp (speaking of amazing WWII films): 4,566
The 1933 version of King Kong: 70,044
Altman’s Thieves Like Us: 3,580
Lubitsch’s The Shop Around the Corner: 22,654
32! This is basically an unseen film. And now that it’s available, you have to watch it. It is worth the $10 monthly subscription to Filmstruck on its own. This is very angry film. Sekigawa is furious at the United States for the suffering it inflicted upon Hiroshima. The film starts a bit didactically and wooden, with a girl getting a nosebleed in class. It’s 1952 and 7 years later the bombing, she has developed leukemia. After a somewhat tiresome classroom scene where leukocytes are laid out for the viewer, the students go visit their sick classmate in hospital, where they have some sort of German (East, presumably) tract ripping the U.S. for its immoral actions in dropping the bomb. Then the movie goes back in time to just before Hiroshima is bombed. People are trying to get along as the war comes to an end. The Japanese military is being as authortarian as you can imagine in putting people to work and the like, but everyone is living a pretty nomral life. Then the bomb comes. The movie focuses not on those in the obliteration zone (after all, you wouldn’t really have a movie) but those maybe a kilometer or two away, who might live, if you can call it that. And what follows is an hour of sheer brutality on film, with the shock, horror, death, family breakups, and tragedy one would expect when an atomic bomb is dropped on you. There is some attempt to show the ridiculous response of the Japanese hardliners as well, but mostly this is an emotional punch in the gut that you will never forget.
We can sit here and talk about the Japanese starting the war and we wouldn’t be wrong. Whether they deserved the atomic bomb is a different question. Whether we should have dropped the second bomb on Nagasaki is another question about an act I find more morally abhorrent than Hiroshima, since we didn’t really give Japan time to respond. We can certainly argue that saving any American lives made this worth it in a time of war, and that’s fair. But those who suffered through this had every right to be angry and this remarkable film certainly represents their story. Watch this film.