The human mind plans the way,
but the Lord directs the steps.
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
Unlike Jesus, George Hogg (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) was not a willing shepherd at first. He came to China in the mid 1930s largely for adventure, seeking to be a journalist covering the Japanese inva sion. Obtaining papers falsely claiming him to be a Red Cross dispenser of food and medicine, he sets out in a supply truck with friends, their destination being the recently ravaged city of Nanjing. They narrowly escape inspection along the way by Japanese guards—a Chinese photographer is hidden in the back beneath a tarp. George leaves them and recklessly wanders the ruined streets of Nanjing, callously photographing the pitiable victims sprawling among the ruins. From the upper floors of a building he watches in horror as two hundred civilians are rounded up and shot down by a machine gun squad. When George is captured, his pose as a Red Cross aide is soon exposed when his captors develop the pictures from his camera film. They are about to behead him when a Chinese partisan band attacks and kills the soldiers.
The band’s leader is Chen (Chow Yun Fat), a Communist trained at West Point, who takes George in hand. When from concealment they watch helplessly as George’s friends are shot by the Japanese, George cannot stifle a cry, alerting the soldiers to their presence. Running just ahead of their pursuers, George and Chen dive into a river. The Japanese fire at them, hitting George, but Chen rescues him and manages to get back to Nationalist territory. At the hospital Lee Pearson (Radha Mitchell), an American forced by circumstances to become a nurse, and at times a doctor, operates on the Englishman. George wants to fight after he recovers, but Chen, saying that he must tell the world what is happening in China, sends him to recover at a distant boy’s orphanage . Chen’s letter of introduction gives his last name as “Pig,” rather than “Hogg,” so the unruly boys have a good laugh at the foreigner’s expense. The only adult staying with the boys is an elderly cook, who shows George that all they have left to eat is a small amount of worm-infested rice. When the boys, led by the angry Shi Kai (Guang Li), attack George with sticks, he is saved once more in the nick of time.
His rescuer is Lee Pearson, showing up on horseback and bringing a new supply of food and medicines. Distant and imperious, she uses poor George, stripped of all his clothes, to demonstrate to the skeptical children the benefits of dousing the body with disinfectant to get rid of the fleas and lice bothering everyone. Before they can really become acquainted Lee is riding off to meet the needs of another station, telling George that he is in charge of the orphanage. This is not at all what he bargained for, so he packs and leaves. Looking back at the run-down building and equally shabby boys, he returns, reluctantly becoming the shepherd of a flock of sixty neglected boys.
George’s first efforts to clean up the rubbish-filled rooms and cover the holes in the windows to keep out the cold wind meet with resistance from his charges. He persists, redoing jobs that they spoil, even repairing the rusty wood-fueled generator. The boys are delighted when the lights come on. Slowly, beginning with a boy trying to teach George a few Chinese words, the others come to respect and accept his leadership. Of course, as with all films of this type—kind Occidental helping poor Asians/Africans (or whatever—same goes for teacher genre films)—there is one tough kid who holds out the longest, making life difficult for George. The latter solves the food problem by journeying to the nearby town where he strikes a deal with Madame Wang (Michelle Yeoh), a wealthy merchant who also deals in opium. She advances him both food for the present and seed for a garden, accepting a percentage of the harvest as payment.
All this is preliminary—to George’s falling in love with Lee; the threat of the boys being inducted into the Nationalist Army; and George’s daring plan to conduct the boys across the snow-bound Liu Pan Shan mountains to a safe sanctuary at the edge of the Gobi Desert. It will be an almost 700 mile trek along the Silk Road for the sixty boys and four adults, with the threat of the Japanese from both air and the ground along the way. During this exciting sequence I kept thinking of the famous march of the children, led by missionary Gladys Aylward, across the mountains in the film Inn of the Sixth Happiness. If you are not bothered by the apparent requirement that a Caucasian hero must be involved before most Americans will watch a film set in a foreign land, director Roger Spottiswoode’s film should satisfy your thirst for adventure and desire to see exotic lands. The awesome mountain and desert scenery is gorgeously photographed by cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding. I think the film captures the danger of this dark period in Chinese history better than Ang Lee’s recent Love, Lust, Caution.
I wish that the screenplay by James MacManus and Jane Hawksley could have given us a more detailed picture of the boys, because in several instances, one very shocking, I was not sure which boy the scene focused on. Also, we are not certain as to why Lee has become so dedicated to serving the people. None of the characters evince any religious faith. Whatever their motivation, the film shows the strength of the human spirit under great stress and what one solitary life devoted to service can accomplish. Especially moving at the end, while the credits are rolling, are the testimonies of a number of the surviving children, all quite old now, paying tribute to the man who saved their lives.
For reflection/Discussion 1) What do you think of George Hogg when you first meet him? Naive; overly ambitious? How does he mature? Compare his values to Chen’s, especially when they disagree over the fate of the two Japanese soldiers they have captured.
2) What seems to motivate Lee? Do you think that her humanitarian service is as much for herself as for those whom she serves? How or why?
3) What do you think of this kind of film in which a Westerner helps the downtrodden of the world? Compare this to such films as: Cry Freedom; Inn of the Sixth Happiness; Beyond Boundaries; Dances With Wolves; Sounder.
4) How is George Hogg’s life an example of the passage from Proverbs? Or the old saying, Man proposes, but God disposes” ? How do you see God acting in this film? Where are there “moments of grace” ?