The war in the Pacific and the events leading up to it are very seldom taught, if ever, in schools today. In my case, and it’s probably the same for a lot of film buffs and history lovers, movies made about that part of World War Two sparked interest in learning more. It’s a complicated topic, which is why we’re going to look at the wartime Pacific Theater movies in two parts.
Britain, the United States, and Holland all had holdings in the Pacific Islands and Asia, including plantations and industries of various kinds. The United States was all set to turn the Philippines back over to the Filipinos in 1945 after having occupied the country since the Treaty of Paris in 1898.
The occupation is obviously a whole other topic all on its own, but for time’s sake we’re going to skip to the late thirties. What a lot of people may not know, and I didn’t know until about fifteen years ago, is that while the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, they also attacked Wake Island, Guam, and the Philippines. At the time there were 30,000 American troops and 100,000 Filipino troops in the Philippines, and as of the 1939 census, 8,709 American civilians living there.
Japan invading the islands was always a possiblity because the Philippines were a stepping stone to the Dutch East Indies oil reserves, which Japan had very big eyes for.
The takeover basically resembled a pincher’s move, or maybe a noose tightening. Japan bombed the Philippines for five days straight. When the exhausted and outmatched American Navy moved out, the Japanese navy moved in. When MacArthur, along with the Filipino commonwealth government and other Allied officers, were ordered to evacuate to Australia, the Japanese moved in for the final takeover. The Philippines fell in April of 1942, with Corregidor holding out until the following month.
There wasn’t much mystery as to how those living in occupied lands were treated; Japanese behavior in occupied China had been truly brutal, which was one of the reasons why Roosevelt ended up cutting off sales of raw materials to Japan. People were shot, people were herded into concentration camps, people were starved, people were executed. It didn’t matter if they were soldiers or civilians; Japanese forces famously hated anyone who allowed themselves to be captured.
To be sure, though, servicepeople got the worst treatment by far. The most famous example of this is the Bataan Death March, which I won’t go into here because it gets pretty graphic, and anyway, we’ll need to visit it a little bit later.
Naturally, there was a lot of guilt in America, Britain and Holland over pulling out; we felt horrible at leaving so many people in the lurch, and in 1942 the news seemed to be getting worse and worse on both fronts of the war.
Then there was the matter of stopping the Japanese from coming even further west. Besides the famous and highly bracing Doolittle Raid and the Battle of Midway, there was the Battle of Guadalcanal, which lasted roughly six months and is considered one of the major turning points in the Pacific War.
Also naturally, Hollywood wanted to come to terms with this guilt and what was taking place by making movies about it. The problem was that during the first year and a half or so of our involvement in the war we didn’t know a lot of the actualities of what was taking place, and for the most part we had to do a lot of guessing. As such, there’s a clear delineation between Pacific Theater movies made in the first half of the war and the movies made during the other half.
One of the first, if not the first movie made about the Pacific Theater was 1942’s Wake Island, which began production while the battle was still going on, based only on dispatches received from the island. Obviously, it doesn’t present the situation at all accurately, except for showing the bravery of the Marines and civilians stationed on the island, but (spoiler alert) it portrays it like another Alamo. This was not the case; it was revealed later that the Japanese took the remaining personnel as prisoners of war. The movie also gives the Marines a dog, which didn’t happen, either.
Other productions were completely reworked. The Bogart vehicle, Across the Pacific was in production when Pearl Harbor occurred, and it was halted until changes could be made because it would have shown Japan attacking Pearl Harbor. In its final form, Bogie never makes it across the Pacific, just to Panama, but the Japanese still get trounced. It was probably a chilling film to watch for Americans of both North and South, who were already on guard against spies, fifth column work, and, heaven forbid, the enemy making it to our collective doorstep.
Of course, films frequently highlighted the sacrifices made by both military and civilians. 1942’s Flying Tigers, which is about a fighter squadron, the American Volunteer Group, has been compared to Only Angels Have Wings, only with a wartime slant. Audiences enjoyed the flying sequences, but the film was panned by real Flying Tigers and various government officials for the liberties it had taken with its portrayal of the Chinese and lack of real esprit de corps among the flyers.
Another movie about sacrifice is 1943’s Salute To the Marines, a Wallace Beery film about a career Marine who’s never seen combat. Thinking he might as well throw the towel in, Beery’s character retires to a pacifist village in the Philippines with his wife and family, where the villagers, most of them American expats, tell themselves that they’ll never have to fight for their freedom. Little do they know.
In 1943, as more stories started to come out of the Pacific, films began to get more true to life, at least as much as the Production Code and the Office of War Information would let them, anyway. But we’ll get into that in Part Two.
All right, I’m going to take a little break. Not a long one, though. Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you all in a week with a new post…
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