The Japanese Soldier, a Casualty of War Films

A scene from 1967's
A scene from 1967's "Beach Red," one of the few American movies about World War II's Pacific theater to portray the enemy as fully human. Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima" takes that approach even further. (Photofest)
By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Japanese soldier -- that is, the human being under the helmet and behind the rifle -- has long been AWOL from our movies.

No director has ever really looked at him, until now, in Clint Eastwood's corrective "Letters From Iwo Jima," which opened here Friday. By my count, of the more than 600 English-language World War II movies made since 1940, only four have even acknowledged the humanity of the soldiers of Nippon. There may be a few I've missed, but not many.

The war was over so long ago, and the German soldier has been humanized, time and again, beginning in 1958 with "The Young Lions," in which Marlon Brando played a civilized Lt. Christian Diestl, thereby utterly reversing novelist Irwin Shaw's portrait of a decent young man lured into decadence and evil by Nazism. As early as 1977, Sam Peckinpah could make a movie called "Cross of Iron," in which the heroes were German soldiers fighting on the Eastern Front, and a big American star, James Coburn, could front the picture. A jovial TV comedy played for years about American POWs and their merry captors at a fictitious Stalag, the late and unlamented "Hogan's Heroes."

So it's odd that such a revision never occurred for our opponents from the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Perhaps the reason is partially about race. The worst stereotypes emerged from the ids of enraged, to-the-death fighters charged with representing the national interest with bayonet, and every physical difference just fuels the slander. To them, we were "hairy beasts." To us, they were bucktoothed fanatics in goggle-glasses with long swords, all the better for separating heads from necks. But most of all, they were treacherous.

Any look at the movies made during the war itself confirms this portrait. Our filmmakers, enraged over Pearl Harbor, seemingly always included a signature scene where Japanese perfidy expressed itself, only to be wiped out most satisfyingly by the righteousness of our soldiers. In "Air Force," Howard Hawks's 1943 encomium to the B-17, Japanese fighter pilots gunned down a boy as he hung helplessly in his parachute, earning John Garfield's ire and a beltful of .30 caliber. That same year, in "Destination Tokyo," an American sailor scrambled down the hull of his sub to pick up a Japanese aviator; he was stabbed as he pulled the man up the side of the vessel. My favorite was 1945's "Objective Burma." More sophisticated and documentary-like (though it shortchanged the British, who actually waged war in Burma), it chronicled an American paratrooper mission led by Errol Flynn in one of his best performances. This is the one where sneaky Japanese infiltrators creep through American lines, softly calling, "Hey, Joe, where are you?" When Joe answers, he gets a judo chop in the throat. But when they try the trick one time too many, a street-educated tough guy answers, "I'm over here," and pops the pin on a pineapple. "My name ain't Joe," says the Yank.

When you look at this kind of hate-fueled agitprop today, it's easy to be embarrassed. And though it may not be a politically correct thing to suggest, try to imagine how Americans felt immediately after Pearl Harbor, and the images of "hordes," "monkeys" and Japanese officers as decadent aristocrats, though ugly, may be viewed as cathartic, perhaps even necessary for military victory. Demonization of the enemy is one part of war.

By the '50s and '60s, war movies had become big and impersonal. They almost never bothered to characterize the Japanese enemy as particularly evil; in fact, they never bothered to characterize him at all. In the big war films of those days -- "The Naked and the Dead," "Away All Boats," "In Love and War," "Battle Cry," even the grittily realistic "Merrill's Marauders," made by combat veteran Samuel Fuller -- the Japanese were seen as formidable but anonymous. They didn't cackle with evil irony or ritually behead our guys, but they stood for indefatigable tenacity, to the point of fanaticism. We hated them because they'd never surrender; it wasn't part of their code.

One of the first movies that understood they were human, shaped by their culture, pressured by their traditions, perhaps unhappy in their work but nevertheless obligated to perform it, was David Lean's great "The Bridge on the River Kwai" of 1957. The film sets up a comparison of military codes. The British POWs in Southeast Asia, led by Alec Guinness, are presented as reasonable; their Japanese captors as the cruel, unreasonable tyrants of yore. But as the movie unspools, it rearranges the moral equation. The same Western rationality of Col. Nicholson (Guinness) results in an act, really of treason, when he builds too sound a bridge for the Japanese. Meanwhile, the sane and reasonable Maj. Warden (Jack Hawkins), leader of a commando team out to destroy the bridge, eventually proves just as irrational, just as indefatigable, just as delusional as either Nicholson or the Japanese officer, Col. Saito (Sessue Hayakawa). In the end, a surviving character looks at the carnage and can only say, "Madness! Madness!" and he's indicting all codes in that statement.

The great John Boorman made a 1968 film called "Hell in the Pacific," in which Lee Marvin and the great Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune find themselves the only men on an island during the war. They get to know each other and in the natural paradise of the tropics, discover a common humanity. Alas, they can never escape the war.

Yet both "Kwai" and "Hell" were prestige projects, made by high-end, visionary directors with clout in the business. Far more surprising are two littler films, made at the bottom half of the studio production spectrum.

The first is Phil Karlson's "Hell to Eternity," of 1960, which for my money is the unacknowledged classic of the Pacific island war. Karlson was a tough, macho B-grade director (he did the first "Walking Tall") but for all the film's close-quarters combat violence, he clearly wanted to make something other than a tub-thumping bloodletting in which righteous white guys vanquish the hated Other. He chose the story of Guy Gabaldon, a Hispanic Angeleno who was raised in a Japanese American foster household. The movie tells of Gabaldon's heroism on Saipan, when he used his Japanese language skills to talk the suicide-inclined Japanese into surrendering, and was credited with saving thousands of lives, both American and Japanese. It starred Jeffrey Hunter, who is about as Hispanic as I am, but even though he has a rep as one of those late '50s handsome stiffs, he's superb in the role. It's a wonderful film if little remembered. (Memo to someone: Get this baby on DVD now!)

Finally, there's "Beach Red," directed by a maverick named Cornel Wilde, originally a studio movie star (ever seen "Forever Amber" of 1947?) who went his own way after losing his contract. "Beach Red," which I confess I have not seen though it is on DVD, is widely known for its startling realism and its willingness, 40 years before Clint Eastwood's film, to portray the Japanese as human beings with families and dreams and the accoutrements of regular Joes. It must have been a brave thing to do in 1967, particularly at the height of the Vietnam War when everybody was shouting about a new yellow peril.

It was a lot tougher on Karlson and Wilde than it was on Eastwood.

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