The 1937 Japanese invasion of Manchuria provides the background for Joris Ivens’s film, begun in 1938, documenting one of the few aspects of resistance where the Chinese, the “four hundred million” of the title, prevailed against their aggressors. Narrated by Fredric March, it was financed by March, Dudley Nichols, who had written the commentary that March read, Ernest Hemingway and Luise Rainer, among others. With bitter irony, it was released a month prior to the disastrous outcome, in April 1939, of the Spanish Civil War, which Ivens had optimistically documented in his previous The Spanish Earth (1937).
Script refers to China’s 4,000-year-old civilization, the imperialistic Japanese war machine opposing this, and Japan’s alliance with “the Rome-Berlin axis.” For Americans, the aerial strike that immediately follows portends Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. But this is much worse; March runs through a list of bombed cities, citing statistics of Chinese fatalities for each before summarizing: “150,000 deaths, all civilians—not one soldier.” Underscoring this is an image of precarious survival: a woman in grief on the ground, holding her toddler; the camera pans to reveal the dead body of (we presume) her husband and the boy’s father. The film’s silence but for the voiceover and sounds of fire—specifically, the woman’s muteness—intensifies our sense of war as civilian nightmare. Bombers roar; people rush for cover; ghastly smoke and flames—destroyed homes; the quick insert of a horribly mutilated corpse; by another body, this time a man is in tears. Who was the dead man? His son? Grandson? Brother? More shots of mutilated bodies follow. And the living: “They leave the captured city . . . and move toward the interior of China.”
The Great Stone Lions of China “look in the four directions of the wind.”
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