I collect Criterion films. I’m also an idiot, so we’ll see how it works out.
What makes 1959’s Fires on the Plain so relentlessly bleak by today’s standards is the fact that we rarely get a cutaway shot of the main character expressing disdain at what is going on. War films, especially those trying to make a grand point about human nature, usually implement cutaway shots of someone frowning as a way to A) let you know that the main character isn’t a bad guy because he obviously doesn’t approve, and B) that war is bad, and we should all feel awful because of how bad it is. The main character in Fires on the Plain is usually one note, and that’s not a detrimental thing. It just forces us to come to our own moral conclusions, rather than “This handsome young actor looks disgusted by war! If A equals B, and B equals C, then war is, therefore, disgusting!”
The film deals with a Japanese soldier that has come down with tuberculosis. His company doesn’t want him, so he is given a grenade and told to go back to the hospital. And, if the hospital doesn’t want him, it is advised that he just use the grenade on himself. The grenade isn’t totally forgotten during the film, but it definitely doesn’t play a Wages Of Fear-type role, where you’re constantly in a state of suspense over whether or not it’s going to blow everyone up. I must admit, I did expect way more scenes of sweaty guys staring, teeth clenched, at a grenade, as they hope to keep all of their flesh intact. I also must admit that I don’t know a lot about types of grenades, as they have varying effects from movie to movie. Sometimes, they kill a dozen men in a fireball, and sometimes they simply throw a little dust in the air and the guy closest to the dust keels over. And when the grenade in Fires does explode, you never see its aftermath, which isn’t a letdown. By the end of Fires, the grenade is at the bottom of the list of worries.
What IS at the top of the list is your fellow man. As Fires goes on, the soldier Tamura is constantly being pulled aside by other soldiers, with increasing frequency, to be told that he shouldn’t trust someone. There aren’t any twists involving a character’s behavior, as the slow degradation of man is well documented. You aren’t surprised when an old man draws a knife on Tamura in order to steal shit from him, because that’s what the old man has come to. There is no illusion of good guys actually being bad guys all along, and no “Surprise! Look at how screwed up I’ve become without you noticing!” There are surprising moments of kindness, but these are immediately scrotum kicked by surprising moments of someone mentioning cannibalism. In Fires, cannibalism is the elephant in the room, and the elephant is shaped like the man standing next to you. I’ve watched a ton of movies about cannibals, but I haven’t seen a film that kept me on edge with just the slight mention of it. In short, I’ve never wondered “Is that guy going to try to eat that other guy?” so much in a one-hundred minute span.
I’m really into movies about survival, and I’ve gravitated towards Criterion titles like The Naked Prey and Letter Never Sent (both of which I hope to write about soon) in the past. And Fires is like them, but only because there is a lot of trudging across unpopular landscapes. While The Naked Prey is the story of Cornel Wilde’s unlimited supply of testosterone and endorphins, Fires is a march towards death, where options are slowly ripped away from Tamura. He could join in with a band of other guys, but they’re starting to get hungry just by looking at him. He could surrender to Allied troops, but he watched one unlucky guy do it, and that guy is now more lead than bone. And he could go to Palompon, which is spoken of in Fires like it’s the Emerald City, but the path to it has been blocked off. Everything is hopeless, and the only thing to do is either collapse or keep on marching. And since collapsing would make for a dull cinematic experience, Tamura stumbles forward.
Can you root for Tamura? Fires never makes it clear. I was certainly interested in what was going to happen to him, and while he does share his salt with a starving man, he also shoots a woman at point blank range because she won’t stop screaming. He then steals her salt and gives some to the aforementioned starving man. The conditions of war have definitely driven him to committing heinous acts, but his lack of heart or morale makes it hard to form a bond with him. He’s a guy who might die sooner or later, whether it be due to succumbing to his illness or by being chomped on by another guy wearing a similar uniform.
In the end, Fires comes down to whether or not Tamura will let himself hit the low point of becoming a cannibal, which raises the question: Is this really a victory? The war is being fought by nameless people in other places, and you’ve already lost everything. Is not stooping towards carving up a currently deceased buddy the thing that saves your soul? In Fires it is, which indicates that, ultimately, while Tamura may kill when he has to, he won’t desecrate someone to survive. It’s an odd ultimatum to give yourself, but in it, Fires maintains a sense of humanity where it could’ve dived into a “OHHH, LOOK AT THE HEART OF MAN! SO EVIL!” theme. And it’s only when he sees cannibalism occurring that Tamura looks away. Fires on the Plain isn’t a “survive by any means necessary” movie, as much as it is a “survive in the way that you see fit” movie.