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The 1977 film "MacArthur" is well aware that there were two sides to the controversial military leader Douglas MacArthur, and you can almost see the makers of this film flipping a coin to decide which side Gregory Peck gets to show in the next scene. On the one hand there was the brilliant military strategist and leader who directed Allied forces in the Pacific against the Japanese in World War II and for the first half of the Koran War. On the other hand that was the vain and egotistical man who selected official photographs with as much care as he plained invasions and attacks. Most of the credit in this film goes to Peck's performance in making these two diverse sides fit together for the most part.
The contrast between the two is probably best captured in two scenes involving Major General Jonathan M. Wainwright (Sandy Kenyon), who was left behind in command of the Philippines when FDR ordered MacArthur to get to safety in Australia. Even though he promises MacArthur he "will be here or I'll be dead," Wainwright is ultimately forced to surrender and MacArthur goes off the deep end, insisting that Wainwright has gone insane and heaping invective on the man's name. Later in the film, on the day the Japanese signed the articles of surrender on the U.S.S. "Missouri," Wainwright arrives, a gaunt figure after years of captivity in a Japanese prison. MacArthur embraces Wainwright warmly, brushing away all apologies and assuring the man he can have his Corps back as soon as he says the word. MacArthur remains the same man, unconcerned by the obvious contradictions of his nature.
Director Joseph Sargent frames this biopic with MacArthur's famous speech to the cadets of West Point, where he extols the virtues of "Duty," "Honor," "Country." Beyond a brief look back at his early life and military career, the story of the film begins with the general and his besieged forces in the Philippines. But throughout the film we are supposed to hear those words "Duty," "Honor," "Country" resonating. MacArthur is forced to leave the Philippines, but he vows to return, and he does. The UN forces are almost forced off the Korean peninsula, but MacArthur retakes it all before the Chinese get involved. MacArthur is able to force FDR to go with his plans, but finds Harry Truman unwilling to go along, thereby ending a distinguished military career of over half-a-century.
Which sides comes out ahead? The ways Sargent tries to balance the two sides gets pretty interesting. Both Roosevelt (Dan O'Herlihy) and Truman (Ed Flanders) have their pokes at MacArthur, while it is a pair of his Japanese adversaries who speak to his military ability (scenes that are reminiscent of the Germans doing the same thing in "Patton"). The Presidents give the general credit for his military endeavors, but those accolades are buried beneath the verbal ripostes; on the political side the rebuttal comes from actual film footage of Republican Senators (e.g., Nixon of California) supporting MacArthur and blasting Truman. Even stranger, MacArthur's aides are forced to play it both ways. On the one hand they are doing everything they can for the general's public relations, but then there are also times when they basically roll their eyes at what is coming out of MacArthur's mouth.
In the end, MacArthur is not only redeemed by Peck's performance, but by having the final two scenes of the film be the famous pair of speeches MacArthur delivered when he returned to the United States. The first was the "The Old Soldiers" speech given to the Joint Session of Congress and the other the speech to the cadets. When you have a character who has been saying some pretty stupid things from time to time throughout the film and then allow him to reach such flights of oratorical elegance, it is hard not to end on his side of the ledger. "MacArthur" is not enough to allow anyone to make a reasoned judgment on the man and his career, but it should be enough to inspire those who are interested to go read some books that can provide you better evidence for really making up your mind.
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