DVD Picks & Passes

The Burmese Harp (1955)  - Pick

Fires on the Plain (1959)   - Pick

Captain Horatio Hornblower (1951)   - Pick

It has been a remarkable month for those interested in the 45 titles of the Vatican film list. Four weeks ago, Criterion released a definitive new edition of Bicycle Thieves, followed a week later by special editions of A Man for All Seasons and Gandhi from Sony. 

Now a Vatican-list film never before on U.S. DVD gets the Criterion treatment. The Burmese Harp is one of two Kon Ichikawa World War II classics new from Criterion this week, the other being Fires on the Plain.

Like Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima, both Ichikawa films depict the horrors of the Pacific war from a Japanese perspective.

Both are based on Japanese novels that depict weary Japanese troops living day to day without hope of victory or even much hope of survival. Both have been called “anti-war” or “pacifist,” a term that aptly describes the horrific Fires on the Plain, but is too reductionist to apply to The Burmese Harp’s elegant parable of reparation and individual conscience.

The Burmese Harp dwells on war-related horrors, above all the countless unburied bodies of the slain, and celebrates the simple act of burying the dead, one of the corporal works of mercy. Yet these circumstances are merely the occasion for the story’s real theme: the mystery of suffering and evil and the challenge to live humanely in evil circumstances.

The film’s message is not simply that war causes suffering. Nor, despite its Buddhist milieu, does it endorse the Buddhist doctrine that suffering (dukkha) is caused by desire (tanha).

Instead, the film declares, like Job, that we do not know why suffering happens. Rather than diagnosing a cause, the film emphasizes compassion, humility and spirituality in facing the disease. Where The Burmese Harp treats spiritual survival, Fires on the Plain is a harrowing examination of men reduced to bare physical survival — at any cost. It’s a hauntingly instructive study in dehumanization, the flip side of The Burmese Harp’s positive affirmation of human values.

Also new on DVD, Captain Horatio Hornblower is one of Hollywood’s finest seafaring swashbucklers.

Based on the adventure novels by C.S. Forester and adapted by the author from his first three books, the film stars Gregory Peck as Hornblower, a shrewd, aloof British Navy officer cut from cloth similar to his Napoleonic-war contemporary Jack Aubrey (Master and Commander).

After a daring raid on a Spanish warship, the film takes a surprise twist from the all-too-familiar convention of Protestant English heroes vs. Catholic Spanish opponents: Hornblower receives unexpected word that England and Spain are now allies against Napoleon!

The film deftly balances some of the best sea battles ever filmed with a love-interest storyline involving Virginia Mayo as Lady Barbara, an unexpected passenger on Hornblower’s ship. Good fun.