International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Prisoners of War Take Center Stage in Books and Films

Posted 1 January 2002 in StressPoints by Brian Engdahl, Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

Hundreds of thousands of people have been taken captive in the course of modern wars. Global conflicts continue to place individuals in harm's way and subject many of them to captivity experiences.

Why are POWs of such current popular interest? Traditionally, POWs have been highly stigmatized. To be taken captive was viewed negatively by those who never had to choose between surrender and death. A few POWs spoke out or wrote about their experiences, but most remained silent and ashamed. The Manchurian Candidate, a film released after the Korean War, in fact worsened public perception of POWs, portraying a "brainwashed" American POW who returned home intent on assassination.

In recent decades this stigma has been lifting, and POWs have been gaining more positive recognition. The establishment of a National POW Museum in Andersonville, Ga., is an example, as are recent accounts of POWs' struggles to survive and heal. They have received much attention, not only from those in the field of traumatic stress, but from the public as well. Recent portrayals have been historically accurate. Below are two books and three films that give compelling accounts of POWs' experiences:

  1. The Railway Man (1995) by Eric Lomax, (Norton, N.Y.), is a POW's searing account of war and the torture he experienced on the Death Railway in Burma-Siam. Late in life, Lomax learns how to believe in the possibility of hope. By sheer coincidence, he discovers that his Japanese interrogator is alive; consequently, he locates him and develops forgiveness.
  2. Prisoners of the Japanese (1994) by Gavan Daws (Wm. Morrow, N.Y.), gives a sweeping historical account of the powerful and disturbing experiences of Allied World War II POWs in the Pacific. Interviews with survivors provide a vivid psychological context.
  3. Paradise Road is a film that gives an account of civilian women captured by the Japanese in the Dutch East Indies. The film presents vivid portrayals of both wartime trauma and coping. The women form a prison camp choral group, demonstrating the central role that the arts play in coping and healing.
  4. Return with Honor, a 1999 film produced by Tom Hanks, had only a brief run in the United States. In-depth interviews with American POWs of Vietnam are woven into the history of the Vietnam War. Despite the POWs' prolonged confinement and torture, the film is uplifting, unlike a previous film portraying their experiences-the unrelentingly grim Hanoi Hilton.
  5. Empire of the Sun is a Steven Spielberg film that portrays civilians held in Japan. A British boy becomes swept up in the World War II fall of Shanghai and is separated from his parents. The film follows him as he comes of age as a civilian POW. Although less well-known than another Spielberg masterpiece, Schindler's List, in many ways this film is just as powerful.