Postcolonial Power Fantasy

Paper Tiger, Directed by Kenneth Annakin

Although Paper Tiger is not considered important, Kenneth Annakin’s 1975 film captures the United Kingdom on the brink of irrelevance.

Imperial retread. British infantry, Afghanistan.

It also gives us helpful clues about how to interpret British culture in the wake of Brexit.

The setting is the confusing geopolitical landscape that emerged after the 1960s.

By then, the optimism that had surged through post-colonial states in the wake of independence had waned.

West Germany and Japan’s economies were performing significantly better than those of the Allied powers that had defeated them in 1945.

Liberation movements in the developing world continued to struggle against economic recolonisation, and radical splinter groups in Europe lashed out at societies that had effectively neutralised the mainstream counterculture.

When I first saw Paper Tiger, I didn’t know any of this. But I sensed it, the way small children who pay close attention to grown-ups perceive trouble.

This information came almost exclusively from the televisions and radios that always seemed to blare in my vicinity. Although my parents occasionally discussed domestic politics in the United States, they rarely mentioned global affairs.

Growing up in the early 1970s, however, it was almost impossible for a curious child to avoid disconcerting coverage of war and terrorism.

My first conscious memory of a historical event was watching the Munich Olympic Games in 1972 on the day that Black September took Israeli athletes hostage.

I had no conscious knowledge of the relationship between Israel and Palestine, radical politics, or the Holocaust. I doubt I understood the differences between Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Yet I grasped how awful that day was.

I have dim memories of watching news segments about the Vietnam War and the Yom Kippur War the following year, but I can’t recall the details.

The crisis caused by OPEC’s oil embargo made a bigger impression since my parents complained about how much the surge in gasoline prices was affecting their budget.

Although Watergate was impossible for someone my age to comprehend, I knew it represented an interruption of business as usual. Exposure to reports of hijackings and the kidnapping of Patty Hearst imbued me with a wariness far greater than my happy preschool years should have.

That’s why Paper Tiger made such a big impression on me.

My family was travelling to Florida on the Auto-Train. Because my two-year-old sister was having a hard time, I was left to my own devices well into the evening.

I found my way to the lounge car with a friend I had made on the train, and we sat down to watch the film being shown there, a recent theatrical release.

Someone there should have asked whether Paper Tiger was appropriate for children our age. The 1970s were an unusually permissive time, however, and it starred a child, after all.

But in the half-century between my first and second viewings, what I remembered most vividly about the film was how acts of violence kept disrupting the equilibrium of the main characters.

As with the news programs I saw daily back home, I was confronted by disturbing spectacles I could not contextualise.

In one scene from the beginning that I recall with particular clarity, a bus full of tourists is attacked, seemingly out of nowhere.

Set in a fictionalised country in Southeast Asia, Paper Tiger tells the story of one Colonel Bradbury (David Niven), who has been asked by the Japanese ambassador to tutor his son Koichi (Kazuhito Ando) in English.

In his lessons, Bradbury tells the boy thrilling stories of his exploits in the Second World War.

Koichi identifies strongly with his schoolmaster even though Japan and the UK were recent enemies.

Although his very proper father, Ambassador Kagoyama (Toshiro Mifune), recognises that Bradbury’s tales are pedagogically compelling since they make his son eager to please, he worries that they romanticise the horrors of war.

Sceptically-minded German television reporter Günther Müller (Hardy Krüger) notices inconsistencies in Bradbury’s war stories early on.

In one outdoor scene, we see him speaking into a microphone in German as he stands in front of a group of men doing some kind of kata:

“Günther Müller, Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen, in Kulagong. Tradition und Fortschritt leben in Südostasien wie gute Nachbaren einträchtig nebeneinander.” (Günther Müller, Second German Television, in Kulagong. Tradition and progress live side by side in Southeast Asia like good neighbours.)

Strangely, no subtitles are provided.

We cut to people the film has already identified as terrorists pulling up to the site. The woman who appears to be their leader is wearing the dark blue Mao hat favoured by radicals of that era.

Then we see Bradbury talking to Koichi, his arm on the boy’s shoulder. They are on one of the outings that Bradbury has incorporated into his curriculum.

“A thought beforehand is better than regret afterwards,” declares Bradbury, summing up one of his war stories as they approach the German..

“A quotation for every occasion, Mr. Bradbury,” Müller remarks wryly, refusing to address him by his military title.

“English history,” answers Bradbury. “The rise and, alas, the fall of the British Empire.”

This ironic line primes the film’s audience to think about the current state of the UK after a series of major strikes and general economic malaise had driven Ted Heath’s Tories from power, but without giving Labour a proper mandate.

“It’s easy to see what you’re doing,” continues Bradbury. “You’re photographing a native dance routine, right?”

“Wrong,” Müller replies. “They call it martial arts. For a man of your military background, I would have thought you would have recognised that.”

At this point, the boy Koichi interjects.

“Mr. Bradbury has a black belt in judo. Haven’t you, Mr. Bradbury?”

Despite Koichi pronouncing the vexing Rs in Bradbury’s name fairly well, Müller replies in a stereotypical Japanese accent, substituting Ls for Rs.

“Really, Mr. Bladbelly?”

“Well, what we learned in the commandos was very different from that sort of thing,” a clearly flustered Bradbury responds.

“Commandos?” asks Müller. “I thought you were in the parachute regiment.”

“Both, old man,” replies Bradbury, showing his impatience. “Parachute commandos, remember. Arnhem?” He puts his hands above his head in a gesture of surrender. “Or were you out of it by then?”

“I hope it won’t disappoint you, Major,” Müller retorts, “but I was never in.”

For obvious reasons, German veterans from the war were not encouraged to tell war stories the way their British counterparts did. Even if he was old enough to serve, Müller seems keen to identify with the younger generation, for whom a pacifist mentality was common.

Although I lost the nuances of this interaction as a five-year-old, I’m sure I picked up on Bradbury’s dismay at being interrogated in this manner.

It isn’t just that Bradbury cannot keep his stories straight that’s a problem, but that he feels the need to tell them at all.

An adult familiar with WWII would likely intuit a connection between Bradbury’s tall tales and the patriotic narratives sold to his countrymen, in which the heroism of soldiers was underscored to avoid discussing Britain’s lacklustre fightback before the Americans joined in.

After leaving Müller, Bradbury and Koichi proceed to their destination, a visit to Fort Cook, which stands in for a typical British colonial outpost.

However, when they arrive at the front door, it appears to be closed.

An Englishman in a dishevelled uniform emerges from the front door to inform them that the fort has been closed for financial reasons.

The UK of the mid-1970s can’t even afford to sustain monuments to its imperial glory. Bradbury convinces this caretaker to let them have a quick look around anyway.

Bradbury’s superficially tall tales prove to be a big deal after the terrorists kidnap Koichi and him as they leave the fort.

Although the Englishman at the fort is annoyed Bradbury didn’t tip him much for permitting a tour of the building, he nevertheless tells Ambassador Kagoyama and Müller that Bradbury valiantly fought the attackers with his walking stick.

As bad as things may be in the UK, it is still necessary to maintain the deceptions that prevent it from collapsing completely, the collective memory of its halcyon days.

The terrorists communicate that they will not return the boy until other members of their group being held as political prisoners are released.

Presumably concerned that Bradbury might have been an inside man helping the terrorists with their plot, Müller informs Ambassador Kagoyama what he has discovered: the schoolmaster is a fraud.

Even though Bradbury is inept and walks with a pronounced limp caused by polio, not a war wound, he decides to help the boy escape from their captors.

When they improbably succeed in this venture, we get a happy ending: the English schoolmaster keeps his job despite having lied about this past.

Paper Tiger clearly concerns itself – as does the Jack Davies novel the film adapts – with the relationship between the former Allied and Axis powers at a time when the greatest threat to the postwar order seemed to be coming from the radical left, both at home and abroad.

Kagoyama’s decision to hire Bradbury demonstrates a belief that the ties that bind the Western powers had become more potent than any lingering resentment over the outcome of the Second World War.

By contrast, Müller’s less sanguine view of the raconteur indicates a more precarious trust, perhaps reflecting that West Germany’s proximity to the UK and its need to deal with the British on the future of Europe made the discrepancy between the Empire’s past glory and its current mediocrity harder to tolerate.

At the end of the film, Müller has come to admire Bradbury grudgingly, even though he is a fraud.

Interpreted allegorically, this change of heart suggests that the major powers of the Western world should indulge the UK’s inflated self-importance because the country might still prove a useful ally despite being somewhat crippled.

What I remembered best from seeing Paper Tiger the first time, before watching the film again recently, is that Koichi has to keep reminding Bradbury of the tales of heroism he used to tell.

To have any chance of escaping, the boy must do his best to collapse the distinction between the actually existing schoolmaster and the dashing figure he invented to compensate for his inadequacy.

This is an unsettling lesson for a child of five, though one that could have proved very useful during a time when a great many adults were experiencing a crisis of confidence.

Paper Tiger’s insistence that Bradbury’s stories were valuable, even though they were sheer fantasy, played a significant role in my becoming fascinated by the Second World War and spending much of primary school acting out my tall tales of personal heroism.

The film also prepared me for a world where Western countries would have to overcome their differences and band together to battle insurgents in post-colonial nations.

Even if I was playing the American or Brit in the war stories I made up, I should bear in mind that the Japan and West Germany of today were my allies.

Most importantly, however, Paper Tiger did a surprisingly good job of alerting me that radicals in the developing world had good reason to take up arms against that alliance.

Although the terrorists in the film function as villains within the narrative, they come off considerably better than the corrupt leaders of the made-up state where the story takes place.

The group’s most intense, uncompromising member, the woman who leads it, is allowed to explain why they took such drastic action.

She tells Bradbury that it is regrettable that they had to kidnap the boy. Yet it was necessary to bring attention to the revolting circumstances in which sixty-five of her comrades are being held prisoner.

“That’s no concern of mine,” Bradbury replies.

We cut to the woman, who looks incredulous.

“It should be,” she declares. You’re a human being.”

We cut to Bradbury’s face.

“Are you not?” she continues.

Bradbury looks dazed, as if he were trying to maintain a Stoic expression but can’t pull it off. His tales of the Second World War communicate a fantasy of heroism that doesn’t fit this new world order, and he knows it.

One of the most visceral memories I have of watching Paper Tiger on the Auto-Train in 1975 is the scene at the very end when army helicopters arrive to rescue Bradbury and Koichi.

As we witness the helicopters shooting the terrorists one by one from the air, it becomes clear that we can only get a happy ending at a brutal cost.

Somebody who watches Paper Tiger today will have no trouble seeing how that expense was passed down from decade to decade, culminating in 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror, which destroyed the promise of 1989.

When we consider the culture produced in the UK during the post-Brexit era, we should be mindful of the ways in which it draws attention to the deferred costs that will need to be reckoned with in the future.

Even a seemingly forgettable film like Paper Tiger can help us perceive what we need to remember.

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Photograph courtesy of Defence Images. Published under a Creative Commons license.