A War Story Commentary

Anne Wheeler’s feature film, Bye Bye Blues (1989) about how her mother fed her family of three boys during World War II by singing in a dance band is more widely known than her earlier docudrama, A War Story (1981), which was about her father’s experiences in a Japanese POW Camp in Taiwan. However, the two films provide rare bookends to the experiences of one family under hardship. Separated by half a world during wartime for nearly four years, the Wheelers each endured that separation as constructively as they could.

Since Major Wheeler had been a Canadian doctor in the British Indian Army at the outbreak of war and then transferred to Singapore just prior to the Japanese invasion there, his Army pay somehow never made its way to his wife, Nell, after she returned to Canada. Nell’s farming family had not yet recovered from the Depression and could ill-afford to look after four new mouths to feed. So she went to work as a singer and, for the three and a half years that her husband was a prisoner of war, she had no idea whether he was alive or dead. She wrote letters and sent photos, without knowing if he was receiving any of them.

Ben Wheeler (David Edney) was taken to a copper mining camp on the northern coast of what was then called Formosa. Conditions there were brutal. Men were forced to work long hours underground, stripped naked, with acid dripping on their skin from the walls. The men lived in uninsulated, damp huts, sleeping on bare boards and receiving starvation rations. Major Wheeler recorded that he had lost 50 lbs. in one year. Men were beaten several times each day. It proved to be a death camp for many of them; in fact, Dr. Wheeler discovered at the end of the war that it was the worst camp on the island. Despite the fact that he was transferred to a slightly better camp just before the War’s  end, Wheeler himself barely made it out alive. He chose to stay with his patients until they, too, were evacuated and thus became one of the last POWs to leave the island for home. By the time he was released, he weighed only 95 lbs.  Like most other survivors of the Japanese POW camps, his health was impaired for the rest of his life.

During his time at the POW Camp, Ben Wheeler tended to the sick and dying with almost no supplies and under the most primitive of conditions. Anne Wheeler interviewed several of the survivors. She discovered that her father had had to perform surgery with no anaesthetic and with only a razor blade for the incision. On one occasion, when a man broke his back in a rock fall, Major Wheeler had the men build a coffin-like box for him and filled it with soft earth. They lay the man on the soil and then Wheeler detailed shifts of other patients to massage his legs for months. This kept the circulation going to the area. Gradually the man recovered the use of his limbs and walked out of the camp at war’s end.

These and other stories about the ingenuity and high standard of care provided by Ben Wheeler to men whose hope of survival was almost non-existent is remembered in a series of affecting interviews the filmmaker conducted with survivors now living around the world. A War Story makes skilful use of the usual documentary techniques, employing clips from wartime newsreels, old photos and reminiscences to build up the background and provide colour to the story.

But it is Anne Wheeler’s decision to dramatize the actual life in the camp that makes this an unforgettable film. Using a grainy black and white effect, cinematographers Robert Nichol and Ron Orieux re-create the daily lives of the prisoners in a manner reminiscent of actual footage taken from POW camps. The starving prisoners move with what appears to be stoic, slow motion. The camera takes an almost clinical look at the sores, the protruding bones, the emaciated flesh. We see patients held down by their friends while the doctor operates.

Interspersed with these re-enactments of life in the camp, we watch Ben Wheeler as he writes methodically each day in a journal that he must hide from the Japanese; he records every event as well as his thoughts about his family. It isn’t until 1944 that he receives his first three letters from Nell, little knowing that many of his wife’s letters have been returned to her. Then he receives a letter with pictures of Nell and the children. Edney, who never speaks in the silent footage of the re-creation, plays Wheeler with an intensity and simplicity that are riveting. Canadian actor, Donald Sutherland is the “voice” of the film, narrating from Major Wheeler’s diary in a quiet, methodical way that matches perfectly the actions of Edney on screen. The audience has the sense that it is present during these terrible years of imprisonment.

Although the mood of the re-enactment is necessarily somber, it is punctuated with contemporary interviews (in colour) of survivors of the camp remembering their doctor for his daughter, the filmmaker. Their love for the man who saved their lives and the lives of so many others is obvious. And their joy in living to an old age makes the re-enactment sequences more bearable to watch. The policy adopted by Dr. Wheeler in the camp: that no one be sacrificed for another and that all share equally, was a decision that no only saved lives, but nourished the spirit.

Evelyn Ellerman