In Depth

HBO: 'Nanking'

More than 70 years ago, a small group of Westerners banded together in a foreign country in a time of war and were responsible for saving the lives of thousands of people.

Like the story of “Schindler’s List” in Nazi Germany, these heroic actions, taking place during the Japanese invasion of Nanking, China, in 1937, were unknown to the world at large for decades after they occurred.

For its telling of the story, “Nanking,” a Ted Leonsis production in association with HBO Documentary Films, can add a Peabody Award to the list of accolades it has received. In its citation, the Peabody board noted how the film depicted human decency rising to confront human atrocity.

Mr. Leonsis was inspired to produce his first film after reading of the death of one of the participants and then doing research, including reading Iris Chang’s book “The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II.”

As part of a campaign to conquer China in the late 1930s, the Japanese bombarded Nanking—then China’s capital—for months. When the city fell, Japanese soldiers went on a massive murder and rape rampage.

In the midst of the carnage, a group of Westerners established a safety zone where thousands of Chinese found refuge. The Westerners, including university professors, missionaries, doctors, businessmen and, surprisingly, even a Nazi risked their own lives to protect the civilians from slaughter.

“I was just stunned by the underreporting of the inhumanity that occurred,” said Mr. Leonsis. “I was moved by the work of these Westerners who bonded with Chinese refugees, created a safe zone and saved 200,000 people.”

The film intersperses harrowing archival footage and chilling photographs with moving interviews from Chinese survivors and testimony from Japanese soldiers. The letters and diaries of the Westerners are read by actors including Woody Harrelson, Mariel Hemingway, Stephen Dorff and Jurgen Prochnow.

“Working on the film was a great experience for everyone involved,” Mr. Leonsis said. “I ended up coining the term ‘filmanthropy,’ using film to shine a light on difficult subjects and to activate discussion and activism and donate dollars around a selected charity.”