Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Will an American ever hug a jihadist?

The biggest war movie buff I know swore his favorite war film was "Yesterday's Enemy," a 1959 drama nominated for four BAFTAs (British Oscars), including best film, director (Val Guest) and actor (Stanley Baker). I just saw it, and he might have a point. And it's a strangely appropriate picture to think about on Independence Day.

The title comes from a speech by a cynical war correspondent in Burma (Leo McKern), who's covering British troops near the end of World War II. He wonders whether it makes any difference who wins: A generation later, the children of yesterday's enemies will lay a wreath on a soldier's tomb, while the soldier himself has been sacrificed and forgotten. He has reason for his cynicism: Baker, a captain in charge of the supposedly more civilized British force, has executed innocent Burmese villagers to make their countryman reveal information about the approaching Japanese. By the end of the movie, the tables will have turned, and British prisoners will face mass slaughter if the captain doesn't speak up.

You can see why this ruthlessly savage and unsentimental film got only a token release in England and the United States, when we were used to movies that made war look like hell but didn't make soldiers seem like devils. The British and Japanese behave in precisely the same way, ambushing and abusing each other; the Brits abandon their wounded for the good of  the company and deny morphine to the dying when they run short. The Japanese commander (Philip Ahn) was educated at British schools and speaks flawless English: After the British captain makes one especially harsh decision, the major says approvingly, "Exactly what I would have done."

The film marked the apex of the careers of everyone involved. Baker never gave a better performance. Guest, who spent the rest of his career making piffle such as "Stop Me Before I Kill!" and "Where the Spies Are," directed this little gem on the grounds of a British studio in five weeks. It's also the lone accomplishment of writer Peter R. Newman, other than six episodes of "Doctor Who." it's been virtually unavailable in America -- I watched a British DVD on an all-region player -- but the Internet Movie Data Base says Sony Pictures Home Entertainment will release it here this year.

I've never been in combat, but the correspondent's sentiment rang true with me. I was living in Japan as a second-grader when this movie came out, 14 years after atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and American servicemen and their families were already treated with kindness. We in America have befriended all of our war enemies, except for the isolated North Koreans. We're allied not just to the British, whom we fought twice, but the Germans and Japanese and Vietnamese and even the Iraqis.

So I wonder: Will it ever be possible to reach an accord with the extremist forces of Islam? Will Americans someday lay a wreath of forgiveness at a mosque for people who blew themselves up in a mad interpretation of religious principles? Could some future member of al-Qaida come to New York and publicly apologize for the attack on the World Trade Center?

That seems inconceivable now, because we see each other as implacable enemies. But pundits in 1945 would have told you there could never be any reconciliation with the Yellow Peril of the Far East. And I've stood side-by-side with friendly Japanese tourists, while we all took pictures of the sunken U.S.S. Arizona at Pearl Harbor.