Behind Bayonets and Barbed Wire, the story of World War II American prisoners of war captured by the Japanese and sent to the Manchurian city of Mukden, begins ponderously and seems destined to put history students to sleep. Black-and-white clips illustrate a droning recitation of facts, the addition of recreations by modern actors; a tricky enterprise for a documentary without much of a budget, this at first threatens to make things worse.
But 25 minutes in, the doc thoroughly redeems itself as its directors, Chinese filmmaker Haofang Shen and American Richard L. Anderson, hit their stride. They intersperse reminiscences of several of the POWs themselves — now nearing their first century — with those dramatic illustrations in what turns out to be a well-acted, well-shot and well-crafted montage.
These men faced a bleak winter, rat and flea infestations, meager rations and punishing brutalities, including physical and mental abuse and medical experiments. Through it all, they were slave laborers in a factory; against international law, the ship that took them there and the buildings where they lived and worked were left unmarked as war prisons, leaving the captives vulnerable to bombings by the very Allied forces that would have saved them.
There’s nothing quite like hearing such memories from the very people who endured these atrocities, and, in the end, after a slow start, the actors who bring those memories to life do them vivid justice.
Behind Bayonets and Barbed Wire
Directed by Haofang Shen and Richard L. Anderson
Trace Images and Double Exposure
Opens November 18, Cinema Village