War Movie Mondays: ‘MacArthur’

This week’s pick salutes the American Caesar, and the hero of the Pacific War. Joseph Sargent directs MacArthur (1977) which is a biopic about famed American General Douglas MacArthur who led Allied forces to victory in World War II and years later in the early days of the Korean conflict. Riding on the studio success of Patton and what it did for Twentieth Century Fox several years earlier, Universal believed that a story about MacArthur would be box office gold as well.

Gregory Peck turns out a tour de force performance as General MacArthur. The film is set as a flashback as he is addressing a graduating class at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. The film also stars Dan O’ Herlihy as President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Marj Dusay as Mrs. Jean MacArthur, and Ed Flanders as President Harry S. Truman.

As the General is addressing the cadet corp at West Point, the film then opens up in the Philippines just before the battle of Bataan is about to begin. MacArthur is holding on and waiting for much needed men and supplies to come to his aid but following the attack on Pearl Harbor, MacArthur and his forces are made to hold on and hope that some relief will come from President Roosevelt and the United States Navy.

In February of 1942, fearing that the Philippines will fall any day and that one of America’s most valued tacticians will fall into Japanese hands, President Roosevelt orders MacArthur to leave the Philippines and proceed to Australia as the Supreme Allied Commander of the Southwest Pacific theater. MacArthur prides himself at never disobeying a direct order but vows that he will resign his commission and fight on as a Private and never abandon his men who he cares greatly for. MacArthur is forced by his Adjutant Col. Sidney Huff (Nicolas Coster) to flee using a navy sub which will ferry him to safety. MacArthur says that he will use the navy’s torpedo speed boats to carry he and his family to safety. MacArthur then turns his command over to Lt. General Johnathan M. Wainwright (Sandy Kenyon). MacArthur asks that the General hold out until he can return with reinforcements which he believes will be soon.

MacArthur’s journey to Australia was very perilous and it was highly doubtful that he would make it to safety in heavily infested enemy waters. He is eventually flown out and arrives in Australia to find out that the Aussies are ill equipped, and poorly trained. He also discovers that there is a small contingent of American forces stationed there and that a campaign to liberate the Philippines is far from being achieved. His planners say it is more than likely that the Japanese will set their sights on Australia next and severe the vital sea lanes between the U.S. and Australia. MacArthur pledges to the Australian people and to the Filipino and American troops on Bataan that he will one day return.

Parts of the film are somewhat exaggerated and there is heavy usage of montages in order to compress the large scope of two wars into a two hour film, e.g. U.S. forces preparing for war and the island hoping campaigns which brought American forces closer to the Philippines and eventually Japanese soil. One of my favorite scenes is aboard the U.S. battleship U.S.S. Missouri where the official surrender of Japanese forces occurred on September 2, 1945 in Tokyo Bay. General Wainwright was flown back to be present at the surrender signings. He had be languishing in a Japanese POW camp in Manchuria following the fall of the Philippines in April 1942. MacArthur is happy to see his old friend and the weak Wainwright feels as if he has let down his commanding general by surrendering. Wainwright tells MacArthur that when they ran out of food, he sacrificed his old Calvary horse for his beleaguered troops. MacArthur pledges to his old friend that when he is well, he can command an army corp once again.

The film proceeds the end of World War II where MacArthur is now the supreme allied head of the Japanese occupation forces, and plans to make Japan a nation which looks to broaden its economic pursuits and is opposed to militaristic notions of world conquest. MacArthur is once again called into active duty when the U.S. and its United Nations allies learn that the North Koreans have crossed into South Korea on June 25, 1950, igniting a “seesaw” conflict that threatened possible nuclear exchange between the U.S., Red China, and the Soviet Union who now had joined the nuclear fraternity.

MacArthur lands an American task force from Japan to aid its South Korean allies. The U.N. acts quickly and other member nations join in an attempt to thwart total North Korean control of the peninsula. President Truman (Flanders) has never met MacArthur and hopes that the general has a plan to end this conflict quickly. What occurs is one of history’s greatest gambles when MacArthur lands his forces at Inchon on the western half of the Korean peninsula, just below the 38th Parallel in September 1950. It was a bold move to cut off, and drive the North Koreans back across their own border. MacArthur fears that for the first time in his fifty two years of service, that the attack may prove to be a disastrous one. Following Inchon, MacArthur pledges to Truman that Red China will not enter the war and that total victory will be won by Christmas. MacArthur’s forces are cut off, slaughtered, and forced back in one of history’s worst retreats when Red China sends over three hundred thousand troops to aid its North Korean allies, further escalating a tiny “police action” into total war. This is where MacArthur finally lands himself in hot water with Truman by making his own foreign policy, and dictating his own terms to the enemy. Truman eventually relieves MacArthur of his command due to gross insubordination. The film then returns to MacArthur as he was in the beginning of the film, addressing the new military graduates. As he stated in his address to Congress when he returned to his country which he hadn’t seen in decades a national hero, “old soldiers never die, they just fade away.”

MacArthur is a decent film and Peck is fabulous in the title role. Like many biopics and war films, there are tremendous flaws and some historical inaccuracies, but the film doesn’t lull too much, and it keeps your attention focused on one of history’s most captivating individuals. As stated earlier, Universal was hoping for a success like Patton, but MacArthur succeeds all its own with Peck and a terrific supporting cast, especially O’Herlihy and Flanders who really make you believe they are F.D.R. and Truman.

MacArthur is available on DVD from Universal Home Video and can be rented via Netflix.

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