Flag-Waving

I watched The Eight Hundred, the most successful film of 2020. It is about the battle for the Sihang Warehouse, the final phase of the 3 month Battle of Shanghai in 1937.

At the very start, there is a dedication to the fighters portrayed in the movie, which also cites the Chinese Nationalist Party for its role in the period. At the end there is also a summary of the wider war beyond the fall of Shanghai, which mentions the Chinese Communist Party as having a leading role in the battle to defeat Japan afterwards. There is no insertion of communists in to the main story of the film – although a large swastika appears during a scene when foreigners are attempting to cross the bridge under the cover of a foreign flag.

We start with Shanghai already in ruins, and the final defenders holding on to the warehouse, which is fortunately close to the International Concession Zone part of the city. Consequently the Japanese aren’t using all the firepower available, to avoid causing collateral damage to property of other countries and thus an international incident.

The battle is thus constantly observed from the other side of the river by crowds of spectators, including a large contingent of westerners. There is also an American airship hovering above.

Thus we are seeing a recreation of the first modern war to be fully displayed to an audience, and treated by a portion of them in a detached way as an entertainment, placing bets on how long the warehouse would hold out.

The action is extremely graphic and brutal, not just in the combat against the Japanese but also in the enforcement of discipline. In one extended scene, malingerers are made to prove their readiness by being forced to shoot the deserters who’ve been written off as ever being useful as soldiers. There are plenty of cowards and unwilling conscripts, as well as eager young patriots who quickly lose their nerve in the firefight.

But they’re all just pawns. In the background, unseen, is the high politics of international relations and China’s hopes for western intervention against Japan.

That British flag crossing the bridge in the banner image was cover for a mission conveying the message that the warehouse has to hold out for 2 days in the hope of influencing a conference in progress in Brussels.

But the garrison also receive a new Chinese flag and decide to hoist it up as a symbol of continuing resistance, realising that the action will provoke a severe Japanese reprisal and possibly jeopardise their chances of holding out a day longer. They do it anyway, and come under air attack almost immediately, whilst the British soldiers and others in the International Concessions can only gaze on. Of course the Brussels conference is delayed and it’s known that the western powers don’t want to upset the apple cart in any way.

The warehouse falls in the end, the survivors ordered to evacuate across the bridge and get taken in by the British and others (our officer starts shooting at the Japanese in support of them). Some big film orchestral music surges around in places, but mostly this film is a succession of bleak, violent images in which exhausted men mumble that they haven’t got any inclinations to heroism. There are a few moments in which one of the younger soldiers fantasises about being a horsebacked warrior in a Chinese army from the Imperial era, but we’re otherwise in 1937, except for the closing moments showing the ruins of the warehouse amongst the skyscrapers of 21st century Shanghai.

I recommend this film, with the note that there is a lot of killing and it ends in the main characters being defeated. You might also want to avoid it if you have a problem with the idea of people being keen on their national flag, at least when one of their country’s major cities has been bombed and invaded, and they support the general idea of fighting back.

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