"The Purple Heart" (1944) was released a year before World War II ended. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had not occurred yet (they would not occur until August of 1945) but America had performed air raids over the city of Tokyo. Those air raids serve as the basis of this American propaganda drama involving prisoners of war.
Eight American soldiers have been captured by the Japanese army and have been put on trial, in a civilian court. The soldiers discover they are being trialed for murder. The air raid over Tokyo killed innocent women and children because bombs were dropped on schools and other non-military locations. The soldiers deny this but the trial proceeds anyway.
For this reason it is interesting to remember the events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Imagine what kind of movie could have been made after those events, and the devastating effects that had, due to radiation, which, some say, is still around today.
But "The Purple Heart" really wants to stir patriotic pride in the American audience that watches this movie and make us hate those nasty, mean Japanese soldiers and their undemocratic ways. We are supposed to get angry as we see what kind of sham trial the soldiers are going to have to endure. They are not even allowed to cross-examine witnesses. We are supposed to think this would never happen in America. We are better than that. Unfortunately, I will have to burst everyone's bubble and remind them of President Roosevelt's order to relocate people of Japanese ancestry, many of whom were American citizens, and place them in internment camps. This was done between 1942 - 1946. In fact it is mentioned in this movie, as a threat to the Japanese, to force them to release the soldiers.
But, this is a movie review. Readers don't want a history lesson. Still, I believe it is important to understand the culture in which movies are made. Movies reflect their time period. "The Purple Heart", as it is now, could not have been made today. It is a product of 1940s America. It emulates a typical American mindset found in several movies during the early part of the decade and promotes stereotypes which would make most modern viewers cringe.
Yet for all of "The Purple Heart"s sentimental, patriotic sensibilities I was unable to become emotionally involved. Perhaps my heart is black but I didn't swell up with pride as I saw the young American soldiers. I didn't hate the Japanese enemy. I simply sat and watched the movie, found some moments of acting effective, others a bit heavy handed and a few unimpressive. At its best this is a rather unbalanced drama.
Of course I can understand why 20th Century Fox wanted to release this picture and I can believe there was an audience in 1944 that would want to see movie and appreciate it but I can't help but feel the movie doesn't go in for the jugular. It could have had a stronger message about human rights and the rule of law, as another movie with Dana Andrews did, "The Ox-Bow Incident" (1943). It could have further exploited the trial as a mockery as Stanley Kubrick did in "Paths of Glory" (1957), which I couldn't help but think of as I watched "The Purple Heart". And its not that the movie's director, Lewis Milestone, wasn't capable of giving the audience great movies. Mr. Milestone, a two-time Academy Award winning director, was the man behind the great World War I anti-war movie, "All Quiet On The Western Front" (1930), the great silent gangster picture "The Racket" (1928) and had directed another WW2 story only a year before, "The North Star" (1943) also with Dana Andrews, which scored multiple Oscar nominations. But, as time has pointed out, "The Purple Heart" is not a revered classic.
When it becomes apparent the soldiers (Dana Andrews, Richard Conte and Farley Granger among them) are not afraid of being charged, the Japanese switch tactics. The best way to conquer is to divide. The Japanese General Mitsubi (Richard Loo, supposedly one of comic Dick Cavett's favorite actors) agrees drop the charges against the soldiers if they will reveal the location from the which planes came. If a location is given the soldiers will be treated as POWs. When the leader of soldiers, Captain Ross (Andrews) hears the proposal, he immediately dismisses it. To which Gen. Mitsubi reminds him, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. So, one by one the soldiers are brought in for interrogation to see who will reveal the location. Of course, this makes the soldiers suspicious of one another. Who among them is the weakest link? Which one of them would not be able to stand up to torture?
This would give the movie the opportunity to humanize the soldiers, giving us flashbacks of their civilian lives. While there are some background stories given, it is another flaw of the movie that we really never come to know these men. They are nothing more than symbolic figures - the proud Americans and are suppose to represent the resiliency of the American soldier.
The best performance in the movie would have to be given by Richard Loo, who was not Japanese but born in America and of Chinese descent. American movies didn't have Japanese actors portray Japanese characters during the war. Mr. Loo does a good job playing the villain, making the audience hate his character, and in typical fashion is shown to be a ruthless soldier himself, determine to make the Americans suffer, as the Japanese do not care how many lives are lost in their effort to defeat the Americans. Look at the movie's poster, with the sinister Japanese figure looking down on the American soldiers. It was meant to make American audiences fearful of the enemy and force us not to see them as "people" but instead "the other".
You can't help but notice a lot of "ugliness" in "The Purple Heart" with the stereotypes and propaganda told throughout the story, yet I recommend it. It is your average WW2 American movie. Nothing about it really stands out to me as exceptional, and that is probably why it is not better known today. Yet, I can't fault the movie for what it does. America was at war. Japan was the enemy. You tell me American movies made today don't do the same thing with Middle Easterns? It is all the same tactics. Nothing has changed.
"The Purple Heart" is not a great movie but for some viewers it may serve as an interesting time capsule. It will also give younger movie fans the opportunity to see Dana Andrews and Richard Loo act as well as became familiar with director Lewis Milestone. Mr. Milestone and Mr. Andrews have worked on better movies, so don't allow this movie to cloud your judgement of them. See "The Purple Heart" for what it is, an interesting piece of American propaganda during WW2.