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By James Wegg | January 16, 2005

Since the beginning of time, the world stage has been bedeviled with politicians and “leaders” who, under the guise of a grand vision and “doing good,” shamelessly pursue their personal agendas for power and domination. They employ rhetoric, cash and “future considerations,” to rally or purchase support for their various causes. They protect the faithful and often ignite military conflicts that send untold millions to early graves; soldiers who, once on the actual battlefields, fast replace their image of the glory of war with the stench of death or misery of survival. Their souls are shaken with the unimaginable devastation, wondering how on earth they ever agreed to participate.

Some do not. Some can see the future and abandon their birthplace, family and friends rather than permit themselves to be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. They opt to become refugees in foreign, “friendlier” lands. In the 1930s, thousands of just such persons made their way to the U.S. They saw past Hitler’s noble intentions and decided to start over and become residents in the land of freedom.

But fate had something else in mind. Once the U.S. entered WW II, many of its newest German-Jewish citizens signed up for service but rather than defeat their former countrymen with bullets and bombs (certainly couldn’t trust “aliens” with actual guns) were shipped off to Camp Ritchie, Maryland where they were trained in the fine art of interrogation, information gathering and expedient dispatch of other human beings. Their expert language skills and first-hand knowledge of the terrain made them the ideal intelligence force.

In The Ritchie Boys, director/writer Christian Bauer chronicles the story of ten men who were part of this little-known initiative that saw service from the beaches of Normandy to the declaration of peace and the “official” end of the Nazis May 8, 1945.

The film succeeds on many planes and has much to offer in its various levels of understanding, but the real brilliance of the work is Bauer’s trust in his subjects. From their words, remembrances and candor emerges the universal theme of identity: personal, moral and political. But, like many of his fellow countrymen then and now, a determined denialist will also find pleasure in the film’s historical footage, jolly wee jokes (Hitler’s s*****m being the showstopper) and interesting anecdotes from the eclectic group of academics, artists and thinkers selected for the interviews.

Most compelling is artist Si Lewen. Filmed in his studio, he creates yet another black-on-white canvas while speaking and uses his bare hands to work the charcoal personally into the fibre, as if painting with the ashes from the ovens of the Holocaust. Its horrific silent message (with hundreds more that surround him*this art is not for sale), screams much louder than his quiet demeanour, forced to quit when he’d been concussed by one bomb too many: “I’m an artist, we’re delicate creatures.”

Guy Stern and Fred Howard are the affable duo who relive their experiences in the back of a car travelling for a long put-off return to the present-day camp (slated to be ”redeployed” unless efforts to preserve it succeed). They chuckle and laugh as they recount how they used to threaten their captives with the Russians, going so far as to impersonate one – complete with the set dressing of a personally signed picture from Joseph Stalin. That was all a lie, but the fear it caused was real. Who would believe it? European refugees, now American soldiers, returning to their homeland to liberate those remaining? Sadly, most of their own families were either already dead or displaced. So where’s the victory?

Eerily, the archive footage of the execution of SS murderers (dressed up in American uniforms to do a little infiltrating of their own) by a U.S. firing squad, evokes present day atrocities (one is just as dead beheaded) by all sides actively engaged in defending their beliefs and remaking the world in their image.

Aye, there’s the rub. The Ritchie Boys did make a difference and their intelligence reports helped bring the conflict to a speedier end and saved lives. But these were no career military men. Once back “home” they disbanded, spurned the reunion circuit and, except for a few ongoing friendships, chose to put their service behind them. There were much more effective ways of using their considerable intellect and talents to benefit mankind; not just those whose press releases give them the moral authority to make the world a safer place.

Any thinking person – no matter what political stripe or moral belief – needs to see this important film then try to apply its valuable lessons to today’s, still, unstable planet.

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