The Flowers of War — 2011 Movie About the Massacre of Nanking, Starring Christian Bale

Trapped in a city that is being annihilated by the Japanese Imperial Army, mortician John Miller (Christian Bale) must go to ground alongside children who are burrowing down into any hole big enough to hide them. After taking Shanghai in the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the Japanese swept through the intervening territory toward the abandoned capitol of Nanking, laying waste to everything in their path. Blood-lust surged through their ranks like fire through dry tender. Nothing was sacred except the might and authority of the Japanese Imperial Army, and Nanking became a bloody, fiery sacrifice.

Only a token unit of Chinese soldiers — led by Major Li (Tong Dawei) — are left to buy time for the people running for their lives through artillery fire, disintegrating buildings, and Japanese soldiers cutting a deadly swath through every living body. The carnage begins piling up in the streets. Women and children are cut down along with the men, or taken for worse.

John Miller had been summoned to prepare the remains of the deceased priest of the Roman Catholic church for burial when time ran out to evacuate the city. He runs the gauntlet of the killing streets and arrives along with little terrified school girls from the church’s day school. They are admitted by the late priest’s adopted son, George Chen (Huang Tian Yuan), an orphan the good father had given a home..

The beleaguered church becomes the focal point for the interaction between the rampaging Japanese and the disparate characters who have descended upon the sanctuary — innocence set against brutality and depravity; self-seeking narcissism glimpsing the vacancy of its character; a haven of peace and order invaded by conflict and chaos. And all of it set against a tapestry of hell so well-depicted by the exceptional cinamatography of Zhao Xiaoding. Captured for us are the charred remains of this city of death; the fire; the ashes; the bleakness; the splashes of bright color like flowers on a scorched and barren plain.

The children arrive at the refuge battered, frightened and bewildered. Though John Miller arrives battered, it is immediately evident he is hardly more than a scruffy good-for-nothing seeking only self-preservation. To promote his own comfort and needs he takes over the late priest’s private rooms and possessions, only to end up with the legacy of the priest possessing him in a blow by blow battle for supremacy. It is a role that Christian Bale’s ascetic face and conflicted spirit is made for.

Now an unlikely clutch of beautiful young women from a famous brothel descend upon the church only to be blocked at the gate. From the beginning young George Chen earnestly tries to protect the only home he’s ever known, pulling about him a tattered semblance of order and integrity. Laughing and giggling the women hike up their bright floral dresses and literally scale the walls of the church, seeming unfazed by the horrors around them. Immediately there is a tension between the schoolgirls and the ladies of the evening — two worlds colliding. But an innate curiosity emerges on the part of both. One looks upon an exotic mystery. The other looks back on what might have been. But gates and spires and crosses mean nothing to the invaders, and only a shaky stand by an uncertain counterfeit priest stands between the children and utter ruthless savagery. Yet an unsuspected ally sends a sniper’s bullet through a stained-glass window. Major Li’s few remaining Chinese soldiers have been wiped out in the Japanese onslaught. leaving him the only survivor. Now the church and its children have become his mission — its environs his ramparts. His aspect shifts from embattled warrior to nebulous reaper, making every grenade and every bullet count, knowing his is a one-man battle of attrition, not triumph.

Much has been written and said about the Flowers of War, a lot of it badly missing the mark. Its excellence shines in a script that David Linde, former chairman of Universal Pictures, is quoted as saying, “I hadn’t read a script that so elegantly and organically connected East and West”. In spite of its critics, the movie is rife with symbolism. Flowers represent femininity, warmth, and beauty in life and in death, their bold or subtle colors a celebration of life or a contradiction of death, their essence a fragrance of hope. When that cold gray bullet came crashing through the bright illumination of that stained-glass window, bringing with it both life and death, it evoked such emotion I could barely breathe.

The Flowers of War is a film that is at once beautiful and tragic. And it is very hard to watch. It is a movie where the tragedy and triumph chop through your heart like a butcher cleaving through flesh and bone. The brutality of it can make you rage. The unlikely heroisms can expand your spirit. But one thing it cannot do is leave you unaffected.


Note: As harshly as this movie depicts the events during that time, it could not touch the reality. I tried to read some of the personal stories, but had to quit. Just reading about the atrocities seemed to leave an oily film over my mind, like pollutants on a body of water. I cannot imagine what it was like for those very real men, women, and children who fled through the streets, trying to escape from a savagery beyond comprehension.

In my opinion, The Flowers of War, directed by Zhang Yimou, took a daunting subject and turned it into much more than “a war movie”. One of the main criticisms of the film is the presence of a westerner on this dark page of Chinese history. But that presence helped bridge any gaps between me as a westerner, and the east — somewhat like an “acting” ambassador.

But also, what the critics of Christian Bale’s character glossed over (or didn’t know), was that 22 westerners were trapped in Nanking at that time. Fifteen of them under the leadership of John Rabe, a German, formed the Nanking Safety Zone in the western quarter of the city, So, a westerner as a leading character in the movie was by no means a stretch.

One of the effects of this film is that it prompted me to learn more about what happened to the people of Nanking, and the circumstances surrounding the atrocity. From what I’ve read, I can tell it prompted a lot of other viewers to do the same. And that’s what a good historical movie should do.

No. No historical drama can capture the reality in its entirety. That’s not it’s job. It’s job is to let us, the viewers, know that such a thing happened, while at the same time helping us to understand that very real people had to endure, live, and die in utter horror. It was a story that needed to be told to the world, and, like the Holocaust, never forgotten, lest it be repeated.


6 thoughts on “The Flowers of War — 2011 Movie About the Massacre of Nanking, Starring Christian Bale

  1. I find it rather odd that this movie was made in 2011 and that I am a huge Christian Bale fan, yet I know nothing about this film. If must not have had a wide release or been reviewed in any of the entertainment magazines to which I subscribe. I’m going to add it to my Netflix queue. Thanks for the review.

    • We found a trailer for this movie a little over a year ago and wanted to see it. It is a Chinese production, but it did get some good critical reviews, just not from the ilk of Roger Ebert and some historical highbrows. Here are the awards it was nominated for: It was selected as the Chinese entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 84th Academy Awards,[9][10][11] but did not make the final shortlist.[12] It also received a nomination for the 69th Golden Globe Awards.[13] The 6th Asian Film Awards presented The Flowers of War with several individual nominations, including Best Film.[9][14]

  2. Off topic, but perhaps you can answer a question for me. You may have seen the kerfluffle that’s going on between The Weinstein Company and Warner Bros. over the use of the title “The Butler.” Warner Bros. released a B & W short, silent film in 1926 with that name. Now The Weinstein Company has a film ready to premiere with the same name, but it is a full-length feature film chock full of well-known stars and about the civil rights era. WB is suing to prevent TWC from using the name. The films are TOTALLY different and probably only 1% of the population is even aware of the WB silent short.

    So why didn’t this happen with the new Dustin Hoffman-directed film titled “Quartet” with Maggie Smith? There was a film released in 1981 with Alan Bates and Maggie Smith (again) with the name “Quartet.” Plus there was a B & W film in 1941 that was an adpatation of the Somerset Maugham short story collection also named “Quartet” — both the book and the movie.

    The only reason I can think of for why there wasn’t a problem is that Hoffman’s film was made by an American company (with a British cast and filmed in England) and the other two films were British. Are American film companies only concerned with what other American film companies name their films? Does that make sense?

    • All my life I have read, and was taught, that titles cannot be copyrighted. I don’t understand this nitpicking. And you have astutely touched on the only differences — British as opposed to American. The review I did of Tom Conti’s movie about the Pope, “Saving Grace”, had at least two other titles of the same name, and since Conti’s is an older movie, it kind of got lost among the more trendy stuff. And as far as I know, the TV show and the movie are American productions.

      As for the current dispute, it sounds so trite, especially with the other movie being over 80 years old (if I’m counting on my fingers correctly). I don’t know what Warner Brothers rationale could be. I know same-name titles can be confusing, but the alternative, to me, sets a bad precedent. I think the problem used to stem from the fact that it would be nearly impossible to determine if a title had already been used among the zillions of materials in print (or film), without plowing through the Library of Congress. But now with the internet, titles are only a search/click away. But, on the other hand, Google cannot be an entirely omnipotent.

      Did you know there is also a dispute between Barnes and Noble and the publishing company Simon and Schuster? And it’s hurting sales for authors. One of “my” authors (maybe it was Bernard Cornwell, I can’t remember), was talking about it on his website. Authors whose books are published by S&S can’t get them on the shelves. It also is “raising fears among other publishers, agents and authors that the conflict may harm the publishing industry as a whole” (NY Times). Here is the Times article about it:

      • Thanks for the NY Times article. Something about this popped up a while back on another NY Times page I was reading, but I don’t think I read it. must be crowing over this because now more readers are likely to buy S & S books from them.

        The Weinstein Company vs. Warner Bros. case about use of “The Butler” title has been resolved. Here’s and article about the settlement. Seems rather silly to specify the size of the font to be used in the title. Sheesh!

        And here’s the trailer for the new movie “The Butler.”.


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