Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Purple Heart

A movie that first showed up on FXM Retro a month or two ago is The Purple Heart. It's getting a pair of airings tomorrow, at 4:00 AM and 9:30 AM.

The movie starts off with a bunch of foreign correspondents from various countries assembled at a Shanghai courtroom. This is sometime in late 1942, so it's occupied China and after the US entered the war against Japan and the correspondents are from countries not at war with Japan. (Note that the USSR didn't declare war on Japan until 90 days after the German surrender, so they were still neutral on the Asian front.) Obviously these reporters know that there's something important going on, but what could be so important that Japan would want to assemble all these reporters?

All is made clear when the defenders walk into the courtroom. They're American, led by Capt. Harvey Ross (Dana Andrews). Ross was the pilot and commanding officer on one of the flights that was part of James Doolittle's raid on Tokyo, something that is dramatized in the book and movie Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. In the movie, the raid is portrayed as having continued westward from Tokyo, with the planes hoping to land in free China. Ross' plane encountered mechanical difficulties and was forced to ditch in a part of China controlled by the Japanese. A friendly local government officer picked them up, but it turned out that the officer was friendly to the Japanese, promptly turning the Americans over to Japan.

And so the Japanese put the men on trial for war crimes, saying that the Americans bombed obviously neutral targets like schools and hospitals. In reality, though, the Japanese want to know where the American planes took off from. The Geneva Convention dictates that captured soldiers only have to give their name, rank, and serial number, so this is what the Americans do. The Japanese obviously don't like this, so they come up with the bright idea of using torture to try to extract the information they want from the Americans. Meanwhile, the trial is still going to go forward.

The Purple Heart is an interesting movie for a whole bunch of reasons. First, it's based on actual events, although the names have been changed. It's not just the Doolittle raid that actually happened; Japan captured some downed air crews and put them on trial. Second, the cast contains a number of young actors who would go onto bigger and better things. In addition to Dana Andrews, there was also Richard Conte and a very young Farley Granger. Third, the movie is interesting as a propaganda piece. Since the movie was released during World War II while the events would still have been fresh in the minds of American audiences, the story is pretty one-sided, depicting the Americans as heroes who would never break under torture, while the Japanese are brutal and sadistic. (There is, however, also a conflict between a Japanese general and admiral over whether the Americans took off from aircraft carriers or from China.)

The overall result is that The Purple Heart winds up being a movie very much of its time. It's good at times, but clearly designed for the benefit of wartime audiences who would have needed a pick-me-up. Watching from the perspective of 70 years of hindsight, it comes across as a bit datedand almost overbearing. (The final scene is particularly heavy-handed, I think.) But The Purple Heart is still worth a watch.

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