Review: ‘Battle of the Java Sea’

This straightforward docu details the first major battle of WWII's Pacific arena, as seen through the eyes of survivors from most of the navies engaged. Dutch helmer Nick Koppen opts for a talking-heads approach more suited to tube play than theatrical launches, but segs are so well shot and edited that pic could stand up as specialized fest fare. Not even three months after Pearl Harbor, the combined fleets of the U.S., Australia, Holland and Great Britain attempted to hold off the advancing Japanese just north of the Indonesian Island of Java - jewel of what used to be called the Dutch East Indies. The Allied ships were virtually wiped out within a couple of days, but sailors from each of those countries survived, and Koppen has put 50 of the former sailors, along with some elderly ex-officers, on film.

This straightforward docu details the first major battle of WWII’s Pacific arena, as seen through the eyes of survivors from most of the navies engaged. Dutch helmer Nick Koppen opts for a talking-heads approach more suited to tube play than theatrical launches, but segs are so well shot and edited that pic could stand up as specialized fest fare.

Not even three months after Pearl Harbor, the combined fleets of the U.S., Australia, Holland and Great Britain attempted to hold off the advancing Japanese just north of the Indonesian Island of Java – jewel of what used to be called the Dutch East Indies. The Allied ships were virtually wiped out within a couple of days, but sailors from each of those countries survived, and Koppen has put 50 of the former sailors, along with some elderly ex-officers, on film.

Their articulate tales of heroism and sudden brutality have been told before, and told by them. But they all appear to know that this is their last, best chance for posterity, and their words are edited with such precision they seemingly finish one another’s sentences, to convincing effect.

Particularly moving is a long seg in which various old salts recall going overboard in the battle, and how some sailors, in the struggle to stay afloat, proved crueler to one another than to any enemy. Further along, a few Japanese commanders describe picking up Allied boys who fully expected barbaric treatment but instead were met with kindness. (The barbarism, one admits, came later, in nightmarish prison camps.)

At 138 minutes, pic’s a little long for a purely oral history; Koppen didn’t have the wherewithal for any re-creations, and so makes do with newsreel footage, old family photos and eerie shots of mothballed ships to fill out the saga.

Still, this “Battle” has a cumulative emotional grip – an undertow, one might say, that makes it feel definitive, even if some players have been left out of the drama. Expect it to get regular play on war-minded webs from here to Java.

Battle of the Java Sea

Dutch

Production

A Holland Film Promotion presentation of an Odusseia Films (Amsterdam) production, with support from the Netherlands Film Fund. (International sales: Lapsus.) Produced by Eddy Wijngaarde. Directed, written by Nick Koppen.

Crew

Camera, Kester Dixon; editor, Erik Disselhoff; sound, Mark Glynne Liszt; associate producers, Miyuki Ikeda, Hiroko Hanai. Reviewed at Vancouver Film Festival, Oct. 20, 1996. Running time: 138 MIN.

With

(Dutch, English and Japanese commentary.)
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