Unintended Altruists: Comparable Portrayals in Western and Eastern Film.


For this final project I was assigned to work with Wang Xiaoming, a sophomore at Beijing Normal University, where we would engage in several skype calls to discuss shared interests and to decide on two movies, one a Chinese film, and the other an American film.  After discussing potential themes to try and select movies from, Wang suggested the Zhang Yimou film from 2011 ‘The Flowers of War.’  I was surprised to learn that this Chinese film starred Christain Bale as an English speaker, but  I quickly realized that this allowed for a wider appeal to American audiences due to familiarity with the protagonist as well as a reason to include English dialogue.  We discussed the synopsis of the movie as well as what  I considered to be major themes of the film from my rudimentary understanding, and we came to the conclusion that Steven Spielberg’s ‘Schindler’s List’ seemed to have a few similar themes.  These themes ranged from a foreigner enjoying the spoils of war in an occupied country to the idea of sacrificing what one originally considered to be most important  for the  sake of saving the  lives of many innocent people.

After Wang and I had viewed both films and discussed our opinions on the two, we began to crystallize one theme over the others.  It seemed readily apparent that both films were focused on the savior protagonist, a man who came to a war torn country for selfish reasons, but who left for selfless reasons which led to many innocent lives being spared from the aggressing nation’s brutalilty.  In this character arc, we can highlight six clear equivalences in the progression of both movies: The protagonist’s initial guilt-free lifestyle living off the spoils of war, the protagonist experiencing a moment of clarity that shakes them from their comfort, a visual symbol of the oppressed’s plight, realization of the Protagonist’s early goals, sacrificing that which was finally gained for the good of the oppressed peoples, and lastly the regret that the protagonist had not been able to save more than they did.

I) Protagonist as a guilt-free war profiteer

In order for an audience to truly appreciate the progression of a protagonist from the beginning of a film to the  end, they must  first understand how the protagonist improved.  This is mainly accomplished by giving the protagonist certain traits and qualities that the audience will initially dislike.  Schindler’s List and The Flowers of War are no exception.


Both films center around a foreign protagonist who finds themselves in a unique position outside of the main conflict.  Oskar Schindler was a German industrialist and member of the Nazi party who, having just moved to occupied Poland, found himself in a unique position to make a large amount of money in starting  up factory production in Krakow during World War II by using cheap ‘slave labor’ in the form of Polish Jews from the nearby ghetto.  Oskar hires an important  member of the Poland Jewish Council, Itzhak Stern, to oversee the business while he stand to make the most profit.  Many of Oskar’s early scenes are those of him enjoying many high class Nazi parties, relations with women, and many expensive wines and liquors.  While treatment of the Polish Jews in the Krakow ghetto is not wonderful, it is neither at its worst for war time relations between the Nazis and Jews.  Oskar is not at  all concerned for their well-being or treatment.  In fact, the only reason that working for Schindler is beneficial to the Jews is because Stern works vigilantly to keep all of the workers regarded as ‘essential to the war effort’, and therefore given a slight buffer between the Jews and Nazi mistreatment.  At the time, Schindler only cares for his factories profits and efficiencies.

On a much more modest level, John Miller apparently works in war-torn Nanjing as a mortician based out of the much safer American Embassy, where Japanese troops do not invade or cause trouble.  When we first see Miller, he is running through the foggy and smokey streets of Nanjing, dodging stray bullets and avoiding Japanese soldiers.  During his evasion efforts, he runs into two girls from the local Catholic Cathedral, which just happened to be where he was trying to go.  He had originally been hired to bury the late Father of the Cathedral, who was a recent casualty of Japanese artillery.  Upon arriving  at the cathedral, Miller discovers that there is no body to be buried.  He soon realizes that the only person in charge of the cathedral is now a young 13 year old boy who had been adopted by the late Father.  Miller begins to take advantage of this by essentially attempting to loot the cathedral of any money and alcohol along with forcefully taking  residence in the former Father’s room and bed.  After the group of prostitutes arrive to take shelter at the cathedral, Miller parties with the prostitutes and later drunkenly propositions a ‘business deal’ with the head prostitute.  While the degree of Miller’s decadent lifestyle does not remotely match that of Oskar Schindler, it can clearly be seen that both protagonists are only concerned with their selfish and relatively short term goals.

II) Moment of Clarity

Both Miller and Schindler remain relatively unconcerned with the plight of the oppressed (the Jews in Schindler’s List and the Chinese convent school girls in The Flowers of War) and focus solely on their immediate needs.  Their complacency is then shattered in one sudden and brutal event.

For Oskar Schindler, that event is the liquidation of the Krakow ghetto, where hundreds of Nazi troops empty cramped rooms and apartments and begin arbitrarily murdering anyone who is uncooperative, elderly or infirm. Schindler watches the massacre and is profoundly affected.

John Miller’s wake up call occurs when Japanese Soldiers defy the ‘rules of war’ by invading the religiously protected site on the belief that the cathedral could be hiding or containing fugitives.  The Japenese Soldiers storm the cathedral and chase down all of the school girls.  No prostitutes are seen as they remain hiding in the church cellar while the students are left to the Japanese Soldiers.  In this moment, a hung over John Miller (dressed in a priest’s outfit due to drunken antics from the previous night) impersonates the priest of the cathedral and implores the Japanese soldiers to stop.  The soldiers ignore Miller and strike him down before resuming chasing the girls.  The Japanese soldiers are then interrupted by a lone Chinese Army sniper who draws the Japanese out of the building and into his own set of makeshift traps.  During the Japanese raid, two of the girls were killed and Miller feels deeply responsible.

III) Cinematographic Symbol to Invoke Empathy from the Audience

Oskar’s deep emotional disturbance at the sight of the emptying of the Jewish ghetto is characterized in the striking image of a single young Jewish girl in a red coat.  Almost the entirety of the movie is filmed in black and white, with the only exceptions to the ‘color-exceptions’ come in the form of a few candles and the girl’s red coat.  Oskar watches the girl from afar as she is led through the streets along with all the other Jews in Krakow.  Being the only source of color at this point in the movie, the red coat is an iconic image to the audience and is guaranteed to be remembered later.

The red coat is seen again towards the end of the film when Oskar is discovering that soon all of the Krakow Jews will be sent to Auschwitz as a part of the Nazi ‘Final Solution’, where all of the innocent Jews will be murdered.  While Nazi soldiers are incernerating carts of Jewish corpses, Oskar once again sees the girl with the red coat, only now she is covered in mud on a corpse cart.  The audience immediately empathizes with Oskar, as the girl stood out to them as much as she stood out to him.red_coatred_coat2








In The Flowers of War, the striking symbol to the audience is in the form of a shoe lost by one of the schoolgirls as they ran from pursuing Japanese soldiers while the last Chinese defenders of Nanking made their last stand against the Japanese.  The leader of the Chinese outfit watches the group of girls flee through the scope of his rifle and pans down to rest on a single uniform shoe left behind.  He ends up being the lone survivor of the Chinese soldier’s last stand and he even makes it to the cathedral to deliver the shoe, where he silently places it outside a room where all the girls are praying for safety.  The very next day, the soldier sacrifices himself by drawing the Japanese soldiers out of the Cathedral and manages to eventually kill the entire troop through well placed explosives and traps, including some on his person.  While not as symbolic  of the oppressed people’s plight, the uniform shoe serves as a symbol of hope to the audience.  It is an image of the single Chinese soldier who did everything in his power to keep the girls safe, and as John Miller comes to realize his importance in regards to the safety of the school girls, the audience passes on it’s view of the lone and vigilant soldier to John Miller himself.







IV) Fulfillment of Protagonist’s original (and selfish) goal, followed quickly by sacrificing that goal

Oskar Schindler’s factory makes an exorbitant profit from all of the goods that his labor force is able to produce.  His original purpose in coming to Krakow was to make a large profit using cheap labor and cheaply acquired facilities. (the factory he uses had previously gone bankrupt, and the house Schindler stays in had formerly belonged to a Polish Jew who was evicted and sent to the ghetto)  In that regard, Schindler greatly succeeded.  But by the time he had made the most of his profits and was ready to return to his home with all of his money, he was fully aware of the Nazi’s intentions of transporting all the Krakow Jews to Auschwitz.  After packing all of his suitcases with the money he had gained, Schindler finds himself unable to leave, and instead immediately begins using his money to bribe important Nazi party members and securing a means to transport the Jewish works that he deemed ‘essential’ back to his home town in order to ‘start a new factory there’.  Schindler and his partner Stern then create an extensive list of over one thousand Jewish people, which they are then able to use to extract those Jews from Krakow and take them far away from Auschwitz.  Schindler paid a gigantic bribe for each worker that he was able to take with him, and seven months after leaving Krakow, Schindler had spent all of his money on bribes and fees to keep his workers safe.

John Miller’s gain (and subsequent sacrifice) is not one of financial matters, but rather of love.  In reforming himself (and his personal image) as that of protector of the school girls, Miller wins the affection of the head prostitute whom he originally propositioned and who had rejected him.  However, Mo, (the head prostitute) had followed up Miller’s initial offer with an offer of her own: Mo and her co-workers would make it more than worth Miller’s time and effort if he could help them escape Nanjing.  Millers original plan is to find a way to get everyone (school girls and prostitutes) out of Nanjing, but Japanese officers discover the school girls and ‘invite’ them to sing at a party that will be celebrating the successful occuptation of Nanjing.  Miller and the prostitutes understand that to be a one way trip and they cannot allow the girls to go.  After convincing the girls to not commit suicide one night, the prostitutes offer to go in the girls’ stead.  The prostitutes then dress themselves in school uniforms and cut their hair to look like the girls that the Japanese are expecting.  They are then taken by the Japanese while Miller and the girls are allowed to make their escape and are able to leave Nanjing.  Miller does not see Mo again and deeply grieves for her.

V) Regret and the Wish to Save More.

The last aspect that unites these two films is that which completes the protagonist’s character arcs.  Where they initially were only concerned in their self-centered and short-term goals of personal satisfaction, by the end of the film they have progressed to a caring and selfless individual who sacrificed the very thing they originally sought.  The sorrow that both characters then feel is not the grief over losing what they had wanted the whole time, but rather the thought that they could have done more.




Oskar is overcome with grief that he only sees the few material possessions that he owns has another life that he did not save.  He views his car as another ten lives that were within his power to save.  John Miller grieves for the young boy George who sacrificed himself along with the prostitutes because the Japanese had originally counted 13 girls when the convent only had 12.  Both characters have grown to such a degree that they are completely unconcerned with the material possessions and pleasures they had originally focused on.  Through the complete character arcs of both Oskar Schindler and John Miller, the audience is given a symbol of selflessness and heroism that deeply touches one’s soul and leaves them emotionally uplifted and inspired.  Miller’s arc is even visibly apparent through the gradual improvement of his self image, as seen below.

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