Review: ‘Beyond Barbed Wire’

A revelatory and inspiring look at a little-known aspect of World War II and modern cultural history, "Beyond Barbed Wire" stirringly reaffirms the notion that severe adversity can bring out the best in people. Modestly made but heroically themed docu spotlights the extraordinary irony of Japanese-American combat soldiers fighting on behalf of democracy at a time when many of their families were incarcerated in internment camps back home.

A revelatory and inspiring look at a little-known aspect of World War II and modern cultural history, “Beyond Barbed Wire” stirringly reaffirms the notion that severe adversity can bring out the best in people. Modestly made but heroically themed docu spotlights the extraordinary irony of Japanese-American combat soldiers fighting, superbly, on behalf of democracy at a time when many of their families were incarcerated in internment camps back home. After its local preem July 12 at a Japan America Theater benefit, pic will begin its theatrical career in L.A. on July 18. Aside from its obvious appeal for fests and target auds among Asian-Americans and WWII specialists, careful nurturing could propel this to a limited commercial life before enjoying a long run on the educational circuit, public TV, cable and video.

One of the ugliest scars on the United States’ 20th-century civil rights record is the government’s decision to force citizens of Japanese descent into detention camps as a reaction to Pearl Harbor. Much less publicized, however, is the fact that many Nisei ended up on the battlefront and emerged from the war as the most decorated soldiers, on a proportional basis, in the entire armed services.

Part of the reason for this lack of awareness is the natural reticence of the men themselves, whose wives and children testify that even they have rarely heard the tales of wartime valor, loss and stoical endurance that are recounted herein. The impression of valuable history and personal stories emerging barely before it’s too late adds immeasurably to the film’s power.

Recounted mostly by the vets, now in their 70s and 80s, in video interviews, with fine assists from actor Noriyuki (Pat) Morita’s narration and excellent, unfamiliar archival footage, Steve Rosen and Terri DeBono’s film logically begins with the attack on Pearl Harbor and the enactment of Executive Order 9066, which sent all West Coast Japanese-Americans into remote fenced encampments.

At the time, there were 2,000 Nisei soldiers in the army. Not knowing what to do with them, Washington finally sent “The Pineapple Soldiers” of the 100th Infantry Battalion out of Hawaii to the mainland, where they were eventually trained for war with members of the 442nd Regiment, many of whom had chosen to serve as an alternative to waiting out the war in the camps. Tensions between the two groups, stemming partly from the more affluent Hawaiians’ disbelief that the camps even existed, are intriguingly described, although it was the 100th which suggested the motto for which the 442nd became known, “Go for broke!”

Serving under Gen. Mark Clark of the Fifth Army, the only U.S. commander who would take them, the Japanese-Americans initially distinguished themselves in 1943-44 at Anzio and Monte Cassino, and one soldier describes the irony of aiming guns at German prisoners from exactly the same sort of guard tower from which rifles were pointed at him in the U.S. a couple of years before.

After Rome was taken, however, the now combined 100th/442nd had the misfortune to fall under the command of one Maj. Gen. Dahlquist, universally described here as an egotistical martinet who repeatedly sacrificed his men for his own glory. After fighting valiantly against die-hard Germans in the Vosges Forest and elsewhere in France, the Nisei warriors finally reached their breaking point when they were used by Dahlquist as cannon fodder to rescue “The Lost Battalion,” a group of 220 Texans surrounded by Nazis; 800 Japanese-American casualties resulted from this seemingly racially motivated, if tactically successful, mission.

Compared with the constant life-and-death struggle played out by their brothers on the European front, the activities of Japanese-Americans in the Pacific theater, where the U.S. confronted the Empire directly, were less physically risky and, for the purposes of the film, less dramatic. Here, men who spoke excellent Japanese were recruited to serve in the Military Intelligence Service as interrogators of Japanese POWs, who, it is said here, proved surprisingly docile and informative since they had never been prepared for the experience of being prisoners. Hawaiian Sen. Daniel Akaka’s claim that the efforts of the MIS shortened the Pacific war by two years seems far-fetched, however, and is never backed up.

Pic’s closest equivalent in recent memory is the excellent “Fire on the Mountain,” a look at the Army’s 10th Mountain Division that similarly benefited in depth from being narrowly focused on a small band of unusually accomplished men. What the two films strikingly share is the impression of the American character at its best; in men from the same generation but of entirely different backgrounds can be found an exemplary attitude of doing what needed to be done, of neither bragging nor complaining, of excelling as individuals through cohesion as a group.

What “Beyond Barbed Wire” has in addition is the sociopolitical theme of a persecuted racial minority transcending the difficulties placed in its way to emerge all the more impressively. People looking for reasons to believe that “diversity” can enrich rather than splinter American society will find much to admire in the film, whose lack of special pleading for an oppressed group runs refreshingly counter to the tone of many contempo p.c.-permeated docus.

Pic has some redundant, repetitive elements, and technique of freeze-framing the visuals of interviews while continuing or overlapping the audio becomes annoying after a while, but tech credits are otherwise solid.

Beyond Barbed Wire

Production

A Tribute to Freedom Foundation presentation in association with Sunwood Entertainment of a Mac and Ava film. Produced by Terri DeBono. Executive producers, Yukio Sumida, Sherry Lapham Thomas, Charles Richard Woodson. Directed, edited by Steve Rosen. Screenplay, Terri DeBono.

Crew

Camera (Monaco Film Lab color/B&W), Rosen; sound, DeBono; associate producers, Kim Fujii, Marla Young, Kent White. Reviewed on videocassette, L.A., July 9, 1997. (In Pacific Rim and Seattle film festivals.) Running time: 88 MIN.

With

Narrator: Noriyuki (Pat) Morita.
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