As time moves on those who can speak firsthand about historical events dwindle. Behind Bayonets and Barbed Wire is an opportunity to get the remembrances of some American World War II veterans who suffered through horrendous treatment in Japanese prisoner of war camps.
It should be noted that this film, although focusing on American POWs, is a Chinese product. In part that is because the main camp that serves as the focus of the film was in Japanese-occupied Manchuria. I think it may also serve more subtly to reflect some of the current geopolitical situation. The Chinese perspective also reminds us that for them the Second Word War really began in 1931 (not 1939 as in the European war or America’s involvement in 1941).
The first section of the film recounts the Japanese invasion of China and their expansion into the Philippines. It is the battles in the Philippines that led to a large number of American and British soldiers becoming prisoners of war. This developed into the Bataan Death March and the eventual transfer of some of the soldiers to Mukden in China. The conditions were brutal and in violation of international law. The film occasionally points out that Japan’s behavior was in violation of the Geneva Convention, but it fails to note that Japan never ratified that treaty.
Most of the film is made up of interviews with a handful of nonagenarian survivors of the Mukden camp, interspersed with dramatic reenactments. The survivors tell of the terrible atrocities they were forced to undergo. Yet they recount their experiences without animosity. They know that some of those who abused them were indeed malicious, but that many others were, like them, soldiers serving their country and following the orders they were given.
This is a bit of history that will soon be relegated to a time beyond the memory of the living. As such, this film adds perhaps one last time for the story to be heard from some who lived it.