In April of 1942, the United States aircraft carrier Hornet, three cruisers, and seven destroyers sailed to within 750 miles of the Japanese mainland. On the deck of the Hornet were 16 long-range, B-25 bombers, stripped down, and loaded with a much fuel and as many bombs as they could carry. Although the “Doolittle Raid” caused only minor damage to a few industrial and military installations on the outskirts of Tokyo, Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe and Osaka, the psychological effect was considerable. Only 4 months after Pearl Harbor, the United States Navy had hit the Japanese mainland. Of the 80 men who began the raid, 69 made it safely to nationalist held areas of China, or to the Soviet Union. Three were killed over Japan. Eight were taken prisoner by the Imperial Japanese Army.
The Purple Heart is a fictionalized drama about the 8 crew members of the Doolittle Raid who went missing in action. Made in 1944, before anybody knew that 3 were executed and 1 died in a prisoner of war camp, Lewis Milestone’s film is a bloodthirsty, racist, genocidal exercise in propaganda designed to justify the murder of Japanese civilians. It is also, along with Robert Aldrich’s brutally cynical film Attack, the best American movie about World War II. While the Japanese characters in The Purple Heart are depicted in such a demeaning, bigoted manner that you can barely understand what they’re saying half the time, Milestone’s film embodies the contradictions of the American war against Imperial Japan in a way that’s true to history. In 1944, the United States was a democracy. Imperial Japan was a fascist abomination bent on conquering all of East Asia. Yet by 1945, after the American government murdered hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians in the Tokyo fire bombings, and in the nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, very little moral difference remained between the two belligerent countries.
The Purple Heart takes place entirely in a Japanese courtroom. Eight American airmen commanded by Captain Harvey Ross, played by Dana Andrews, are on trial, not as POWs, but as common criminals, accused of machine gunning Japanese civilians at schools and hospitals. The trial is a mockery of justice. Newspaper reporters from friendly nations like Germany are admitted. Journalists from neutral countries like Portugal and the Soviet Union suddenly find that their press credentials are no longer valid. The 8 men are assigned a “defense attorney” who never consults with his “clients,” or cross examines witnesses. The prosecuting attorney is a sadistic Japanese army officer named General Mitsub. The “judge” isn’t a judge at all, but a Japanese warlord. Captain Ross is not allowed to meet with either the Red Cross or the ambassador from the Swiss embassy. The verdict is a foregone conclusion. Captain Ross and his seven crewmen will be found guilty.
“So why have the trial at all?” the viewer wonders. “Why not just line Captain Ross and his men up against the nearest wall, and call the firing squad”
While Lewis Milestone’s depiction of the Japanese is not only racist, but genocidal, his depiction of their politics is surprisingly realistic. The only reason Captain Ross and his 7 crewman are on trial at all is a bureaucratic squabble between the Japanese Army and the Japanese Navy. General Mitsub, an army officer, wants the Americans to swear under oath that the 16 bombers came from an aircraft carrier. For him, it would be a loss of honor if they came from occupied China. The Japanese Navy, on the other hand, denies that an American carrier got within 1000 miles of the Japanese mainland, even though the United States cruiser Nashville had sunk a Japanese picket boat that got too close to the Hornet’s task force.
In other words, if General Mitsub cannot prove that the Doolittle Raid came from an aircraft carrier, he’ll have to commit seppuku. If he succeeds in extracting a confession from Captain Ross, and his men, then the Emperor will put the blame on the navy. One by one he calls up the members of Captain Ross’ crew out of their cell, and tries to torture them into admitting the 16 bombers came from the Hornet. There’s Sergeant Jan Skvoznik, a big Polish American football player. He loses his mind. There’s Lieutenant Angelo Canelli, and Italian American painter. They break his hands. There’s Sergeant Howard Clinton, a teenager from the south. After he refuses to talk, they cut out his vocal chords. Finally, there’s Captain Ross himself. As the senior officer, he’s tortured psychologically, not physically. “I worked on a fishing boat out of Sante Barbara,” Mitsub says. “I mapped every inch of your coastline from San Diego to Seattle.”
The climax of the Purple Heart comes when the judge offers the Americans a deal. As soldiers “just following orders,” they don’t even have to admit they came from an aircraft carrier. All they have to do is name their commanding officers. When Captain Ross asks for a recess, General Mitsub is confident that he’s won. But the American commander has something up his sleeve the Japanese of Lewis Milestone’s film will never understand, radical democracy. Mitsub, like all authoritarians, had hoped to beat the enemy by divide and conquer, by isolating the weakest link in the chain. Captain Ross decides that he can not only win, but he can win playing by Mitsub’s rules. The military chain of command is suspended, he announces during the recess. He won’t order any of the men to stay silent against their will. They will take a vote. What’s more, the vote will be decided, not by majority rule, but by consensus. He holds out a vase and passes it around the room. Each man will drop his wings inside, broken if he votes to talk, unbroken is he votes to say silent and die. Mitsub comes into the room to announce that the recess is over. Captain Ross hands the vase to the judge. If there’s even one pair of broken wings inside the vase, all eight men will tell the court what they want to hear.
Needless to say, in a pro-war propaganda film like The Purple Heart, there won’t be any broken wings. There aren’t. One by one, the judge counts them out. One by one, they’re unbroken. When he reaches the eight unbroken wing, he looks both enraged and dismayed. “Is this your answer?” he says in disbelief. Captain Ross stands up and gives a defiant speech that’s both ridiculous and inspiring. “This war won’t be finished until your dirty little empire is wiped off the face of the earth,” he says. We hear a gunshot. General Mitsub has committed suicide. Democracy has beaten fascism. As odd as it may seem in a pro-war, racist, genocidal work of propaganda, that’s the message. Democracy is good. Torture is bad. Real men stand up for democracy against torture, kangaroo courts, and fascist intimidation.
Whether or not Lewis Milestone – a Russian Jew making a racist film, even as Hitler was gassing Jews in Eastern Europe – genuinely believed his genocidal depiction of the Japanese is beside the point. Nobody believes it today. There’s anti-Japanese, and anti-Chinese bigotry in the United States of 2015, but even the most hard core racist would find the depiction of the Japanese in The Purple Heart almost comically dated. On the other hand, Lewis Milestone raises issues, kangaroo courts behind a wall of censorship, torture, the electronic surveillance of prisoners and the denial of counsel to the accused, that are sadly relevant to the United States of The Patriot Act.
Everything Lewis Milestone accused the Japanese of in 1944, anybody could accuse the United States of in 2015. Everything that General Mitsub did to Captain Ross and his crew, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have done to Chelsea Manning, Barrett Brown, and Jeremy Hammond. No American can honestly watch The Purple Heart in 2015 and say he’s like Captain Ross or Lieutenant Wayne Greenbaum, Ross’ second in command, an educated Jewish American from New York, a CUNY graduate who can quote the Geneva Convention from memory. On the contrary, if General Mitsub presides over a mockery of justice based on divide and conquer, surveillance, torture, and arbitrary executions, we all remember how George W. Bush said “the Constitution is only a piece of paper,” or how Alberto Gonzalez called the Geneva Convention “quaint,” or how Barack Obama declared Wall Street to be above the law, and then went on to prosecute journalists and whistle blowers.
What’s more, even in 1944, Milestone’s propaganda was full of holes. While the Doolittle Raid bombed only military targets, by 1945, the United States Air Force under Curtis LeMay was committing crimes against Japanese civilians far and away worse than machine gunning a schools and hospitals. LeMay’s air force burned Tokyo to the ground, killing over 100,000 people and displacing over a million. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were two of the greatest war crimes in history. Indeed, the American mass murder of Japanese civilians along with the internment of Japanese Americans based on nothing but the color of their skin gives the lie to the idea that “we” were fighting for democracy against the Japanese. On the contrary, we were fighting for empire. Whatever his intentions, Lewis Millstone gets it all up on screen, the democratic, multicultural ideal of Roosevelt’s New Deal America, and the genocidal racism that made it impossible.