A strange jungle tale from World War II

A brief revival in the ancient tribal practice of head hunting during World War II is the subject of a new hour-long documentary premiering on Channel 4 in the UK on Saturday.
October 7, 2010

A brief revival in the ancient tribal practice of head hunting during World War II is the subject of a new hour-long documentary premiering on Channel 4 in the UK this Saturday.

Headhunters of World War II focuses on a crew of American airmen who are shot down over the Southeast Asian island of Borneo, then occupied by the Japanese military. The men are rescued and protected by traditional Dayak tribes people who, at the time, still hunted with poisoned blow darts and had a history of head hunting their enemies. In an unsettling twist, British Major Tom Harrison revives the tribal practice -outlawed at the time – to exact revenge on the Japanese soldiers.

The Icon Films-produced doc is based on the book The Airmen and the Headhunters: A True Story of Lost Soldiers, Heroic Tribesmen and the Unlikeliest Rescue of World War II by Judith M. Heimann and was commissioned by National Geographic Channels International, THIRTEEN and Channel 4. It will air in the UK on Saturday, Oct. 9 on Channel 4 and in the United States on Nov. 11 as part of PBS’ Secrets of the Dead series.

For director/producer Mark Radice, the chance to recreate and document this strange encounter in a part of the world on the periphery of World War II was ‘un-turn-down-able’.

‘It was an unbelievably good story before I even knew half of it,’ he says. ‘Within the story itself there is a fascinating clash of cultures: the Dayaks, the Americans, the Australian commandos and the British major. Each of them are tested by what they’re confronted with.’

Radice used a mix of dramatic re-enactments, interviews with Dayak tribes people and the lone-surviving American soldier Dan Illerich, as well as archival footage to recreate the complex tale. The crew spent a month in summer 2009 traveling to remote parts of Malaysian and Indonesian Borneo to shoot.

‘The jungle is quite difficult to photograph,’ he says. ‘When you’re away from it, it’s quite hard to photograph and there’s the issue of logging in Borneo so a lot of the really dense jungle that was seen in 1945 doesn’t really exist anymore sadly.’

Film and photos from the actual events were non-existent but the production was able to track down photos of the bamboo runways the Dayaks built so the Australian commandos could rescue the Americans. When he zoomed in, Radice could see the skulls of the Japanese soldiers planted on stakes beside the airstrip.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.