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Purple Heart, The
The Purple Heart is a key propaganda movie of the war years, one that raises our curiosity re: the purpose of Hollywood's entertainments with war themes. It's concerned with the fate of a number of American flyers captured by the Japanese after the daring Doolittle bombing raid on Tokyo in early 1942; when this movie came out two years later their fate was still unreported and perhaps unknown. What was coming to light at the time was that the Japanese were treating their prisoners of war with an unexpected savagery -- especially as facts about the barbaric Bataan Death March were released. Hatred of the Japanese was at an all-time high.
The Purple Heart doesn't just tell its audience to Remember Pearl Harbor; it encourages blood-lust revenge. Organized like a courtroom drama interrupted by unseen torture sessions, the film casts its American captives (playing men at the time similarly imprisoned) as spokesmen for American values. For a conclusion, star prisoner Dana Andrews delivers a furious speech at the Japanese courtroom, promising Japan a rain of retributive bombs and fire from the skies -- an onslaught that very soon became a fact.
The Purple Heart is accurate on one count: none of the American prisoners broke under pressure. With no precise idea what had really become of the captives, Darryl Zanuck's organizes his story to elicit a specific set of reactions in the audience, the American public.
Many details seem unlikely. The Japanese lock-up is a slightly expressionistic maze of bars, like the prison cell in Fritz Lang's You Only Live Once. The prisoners are all kept together instead of separated so as to destroy their sense of unity and to let psychological isolation do its work. In the courtroom, the prisoners are unrestrained, allowed to vent their opinions and feelings and even to make physical demonstrations of their outrage. Zanuck wanted a morale builder, not realism, and the American captives in The Purple Heart are allowed to 'morally' put their Japanese captors on trial. Kangaroo courts and show trials just don't work like that.
The film depicts the Japanese as verminous sub-humans. We see officers, guards, officials and judges, and all are painted in negative tones. The soldiers are mouth-breathing thugs. General Mitsui is an alcoholic, conniving schemer with a pair of geisha concubines in attendance when he takes tea. The judges speak in spastic outbursts, like chattering demons. All of the Japanese are transparently insincere and given to incongruous (to us) grins. In the film's most famous scene, news comes of the fall of Corregidor. One of the judges screams out the glad tidings, whereupon the soldiers in the room break out in wild choreographed sword dancing, a flashing montage of swords, legs and shadows on the walls. It's like the revelry for Satan at the end of Walt Disney's Fantasia.
We're also given a 'good' Chinese character (Benson Fong of Our Man Flint) and another 'evil' one. Despite the good Chinese's sacrifice, The Purple Heart doesn't encourage trusting any Asian. A Chinese son assassinates his own father right in the courtroom, something that Chinese-Americans might have found a cultural stretch at best.
The prisoners are afforded plenty of quality time behaving as representatives of American virtues. Kept together, they reinforce one another and refuse to fall prey to General Mitsubi's tricks. John Craven spouts poetry as the camera peeks through the prison bars. Farley Granger worries about being tough enough to withstand torture, while Sam Levene's 'mensch' character offers him emotional support. Dana Andews' captain remembers his family back home via an idealized flashback.
Most of the prisoners are tortured, but show little in the way of physical wounds. We have no idea what the 'inscrutable monsters' are doing to them off-screen, but one returns acting as if he'd been lobotomized and another is unconscious. Farley Granger comes back intact, just nervous and incapable of speaking. One of the nicest guys comes back holding his hands up stiffly -- he's now wearing gloves. Nobody asks him what happened, and we're almost afraid to think about it. Who's down in the torture room, Fu Manchu?
Back in the courtroom, everything but the verdict works out in the prisoners' favor. Their main nemesis commits suicide (in public?!) and both Sam Levene and Dana Andrews get to tell the Japanese judge off but good. This surely brought American theaters to their feet in approval. In 1944, public opinion was probably in favor of wiping out the entire Japanese nation.
The specifics of wartime propaganda movies weren't debated or discussed by officials in public, so we don't know if the War Office approved of The Purple Heart or were concerned that it put American POWs at risk, or stirred up unnecessary anti- 'Jap' hatred. These days, the wartime actions of the Japanese military government should make Americans particularly uneasy. The Japanese ignored the Geneva Convention -- they never became signatories. The Japanese refuse to classify the captured Doolittle raiders as soldiers and hold semi-secret trials with political purposes, reserving the right to imprison and execute them at whim. They consider the raid an act of murder and terror unrelated to their own sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, simply because doing so is convenient to their purposes.
The Purple Heart comes off as an expertly made propaganda film that served its purpose well. To every thing there is a season, and Hollywood was certainly hitting our enemies with righteous fervor. But it's an unpleasant picture now and it should have been then. Critic James Agee lauded the film's aims while worrying that 'atrocity' films would damage American sensibilities. 1 The movie now seems unusually severe, like a 'Five Minute Hate' from 1984, and it reminds us of ugly parallels in our present behavior with 'enemy combatants.'
Fox's War Classics presentation of The Purple Heart is another polished presentation from near-perfect elements. Unlike other 'Jap Hate' propaganda pictures like Wake Island (re-edited and toned down from its original length) and Gung Ho! (public domain and rarely screened), this Darryl Zanuck production remains intact. The disc comes with a trailer, a brief still gallery and an extremely disappointing commentary from Richard Shickel. The superlative print critic's comments are sparse, slow, and touch only lightly upon the issues brought up by the film. Schickel makes minor points about the actual raid but reveals nothing of how or why the film came about or whether anybody debated its appropriateness --- what did the families of the captive soldiers think, or did they have rights in the mass war effort?
The military minded might have concerns as well. At the end, the soldiers draw lots (with their own flying insignia) to decide whether or not to cave in to the Japanese demand for strategic information. They've all sworn to do no such thing under any circumstances, so isn't the vote itself treasonous behavior?
Fox's cover art features a portrait of Dana Andrews (we hear him sing a bit in the movie!) against an image of flying planes unrepresentative of the movie.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Purple Heart rates:
Supplements: Commentary by Richard Schickel
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 18, 2007
1. Agee on Film Volume 1, Grossets Universal Library 1958, page 80.
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