'Behind Bayonets and Barbed Wire': Film Review

Beyond Bayonets and Barbed Wire - Still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Trace Images
The elderly survivors' moving testimony is the most powerful aspect of this WWII doc.

Richard L. Anderson's and Haofang Shen's documentary relates the tale of thousands of American POWs forced by the Japanese to serve as slave laborers in World War II.

When, oh when, will documentary filmmakers — especially those on a limited budget — learn that dramatic re-creations almost never work? The lesson has not been imparted to co-directors Haofang Shen and Richard L. Anderson, whose otherwise compelling film about the atrocities suffered by American POWs in World War II is marred by cheesy reenactments that give their film the feel of a high school educational video. Nonetheless, the powerful testimonies delivered by the elderly survivors give Behind Bayonets and Barbed Wires an important reason for being.

The Chinese-American co-production relates the story of thousands of American soldiers who surrendered to the Japanese army after their failed defense of the Philippines. They were forced to participate in the infamous Bataan Death March, in which some 15,000 men died on their way to a prison camp in what was then known as the city of Mukden (now known as Shenyang) in Japanese-occupied Chinese Manchuria.

Forced to work as slave laborers in factories producing war materials for the country they had fought against, the prisoners suffered terribly. They were subjected to brutal treatment, both physically and emotionally; were made the subjects of medical experiments; experienced bitter cold and rat and lice infestations; and exposed to other horrors.

Some 20 or so of the former prisoners, most of them in their 90s, relate their tales with often startling detail and a surprising lack of bitterness. Most poignantly, several demonstrate that they still remember their prisoner number, which they were forced to recite in Japanese every day of their imprisonment.

The film effectively weaves in newsreel footage — much of it familiar to history buffs — such as General Douglas MacArthur's famous declaration, "I shall return," when he was ordered to leave the Philippines and decamp to Australia.

Less effective are the poorly staged dramatic segments that have none of the impact of the stark reminiscences delivered by the elderly vets themselves. In this case, hearing is definitely better than seeing.

Production: Trace Images, China Film Group, North United Film and Television Group
Directors: Richard L. Anderson, Haofang 
Producers: Zhao Haicheng, Liu Yangeng
Director of photography: Cao Yong
Editors: Guo Jianping, Mark Vanocur, Tsyen Shen
Composers: You Yongyi, You Quan, Mark Vanocur
Not rated, 88 minutes