This movie is the compelling true story of George Hogg, a young British journalist who travels in China in the 1930s, during the time of the invasion and occupation of China by the Japanese. George wants to report about China because he has the idealism and drive of a young man that thinks he is going to change the world. He has no idea how dangerous the terrain is that he is going into.
An unlikely hero at first, he is thrown into impossible situations with practically no way out. He ends up in an orphanage of 60 Chinese boys that he cannot even communicate with, and suddenly they all look to him for leadership and ultimately survival. He discovers his internal heroism, ingenuity, creativity and love and takes charge. The task involves first simply keeping the boys sheltered, fed, protected and educated. He lives up to the task. Then, as the Japanese close in, he decides to take the whole orphanage on foot on a 700 mile walk west into the Gobi desert, over icy mountain passes, and into presumed safety.
The scenery takes your breath away. The Chinese haze makes the landscapes grey and misty, with an orange sun hanging like a lantern above the world. Since most of the main characters are British or educated Chinese, most of the dialog is in English, but we hear plenty of Japanese and Chinese, with English subtitles. That makes the movie very authentic and I felt I was there.
Having studied a lot of Japanese myself, it was refreshing to hear the slow and plodding Japanese of the young Briton when he talked to soldiers. And there was the Chinese which of course I did not understand a thing of, but listening to it in the movie made me want to go and sign up for a class. I wondered about whether the average American could hear the difference between Chinese and Japanese or if the two languages sounded the same? To me the difference is as obvious as the difference between Spanish and German.
It made me think about the far-reaching effect of World War II. We usually think of that war to be in Europe and the Pacific. But here I was immersed in an experience in the heart of China, a place we don’t often think about, and there were orphans suffering terribly, there were civilians being massacred, there were towns being bombed and families torn apart. And thousands and thousands of people simply stopped living after a bullet was delivered into their heads by some young Japanese soldier who didn’t give it another thought.
This is a long movie, over 2 hours, but it takes you along for the ride, and at the end you will sit there and stare at the credits and listen to the Chinese music. Numb, for a while.