That’s right, this week it’s two, count ’em two, movies, both of them about the same subject. In this case, the subject is the career of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, made up of Japanese-American soldiers and famously the most decorated unit in the US Army ever. I’m not going to go into the long history of the unit, but you can read about it at the link above, then maybe check out the terrifying list of Medal of Honor citations. It’s one of those stories that can’t help but be both inspiring and depressing at the same time.
2006’s Only the Brave is a little independent film that shifts between the battle to rescue the “Lost Battalion” of the 141st Infantry Regiment and the soldiers’ lives back in Hawaii through a series of flashbacks that begin with the main character, played by Lane Nishikawa, takes a head wound. Is he hallucinating, or is he actually somehow having visions? It’s available on UK Amazon, and probably US as well.
Over on Bad Movie Marathon, we get a little nervous when we find out that a film is written by, directed by and starring the same person. Lane Nishikawa didn’t write this, but he did direct, produce and star in it. Bad omen notwithstanding, it’s good. It’s quite stagey, which I take to be a function of its relatively low budget. The battle scenes happen a lot at night, presumably for the same reason. But you’re not really there for the battle scenes — this is primarily a story about the soldiers and their lives before and during the war; the most important scenes are the flashbacks and the ones of the soldiers just hanging out. And it’s pretty good!
I really like how this film just has characters speaking a mixture of mainland English and pidgin and does not give a fuck that it might be hard for the viewers to understand. Like, you can work it from context easily enough, and it’s how those soldiers would have talked. So that’s how they talk in the movie.
Similar but almost infinitely weirder is 1951’s Go for Broke!, starring Hollywood utility white guy Van Johnson. Looking at that poster you’d be hard-pressed to tell that there was a Japanese-American character in the film. I can’t zoom in clearly enough to see those little black-and-white cartoons on the poster, but I’m guessing they’re about how hi-larious it is that Japanese-Americans are typically shorter than Van Johnson, a recurring theme in the film. The ad makes it seem like a train wreck, but it isn’t really.
In fact, Van Johnson’s role here is to be the dumbass white guy who comes in to command a unit of Japanese-American troops; he’s initially kind of a racist, but eventually they win him over and he realises what a jerk he’s been. Now, there’s a lot not to like about that idea — after all, you shouldn’t have to win over someone who’s prejudiced against you. That puts the burden on the target of discrimination, who has enough problems already. But I guess that’s a narrative that allows white audience members to overcome prejudice without necessarily having to accuse themselves. Its heart is in the right place; when discussing this movie with friends or my wife, I found myself using the words “for 1951” quite a lot.
It didn’t dance around the subject of the detention centres as much as I thought it was going to, although it doesn’t spend a lot of time on them. A white officer seems to be OK with the camps, even while defending his troops against racist meathead Johnson; but then shortly after that there’s a scene of a soldier assembling a care package for his family back in the camp, which is a pointed comment considering it’s traditionally the other way around.
Now, as you might expect, even in a story that’s about portraying Japanese-American soldiers as heroic, there are still some uncomfortable moments. Still, for 1951 this isn’t super racist; it’s basically just yer typical war drama with that subplot. Many war films deal in cornball stereotypes, and this one is no exception, even when it’s trying to spread an anti-racist message. I think its portrayal of military life is probably quite accurate — a lot of marching, grumbling and waiting punctuated by moments of often-bewildering action. This doesn’t surprise me, since one imagines that many of the audience members in 1951 would be veterans.
Not to mention the cast; some of the soldiers in the film are actually veterans of the 442nd, which is weird. Like, Buffalo Bill and the Indians level weird. Apparently no one in the post-war era thought that this particular piece of authenticity was the phoniest thing imaginable, which just goes to show how our understanding of those concepts has changed.
I found it very interesting that both the movie and the poster had to explain that “go for broke” means “shoot the works,” since I think that if you had to explain “shoot the works” to a modern person you’d explain that it means “go for broke.”
Aaaaanyway, the nice thing about this one is that it is actually in the public domain, so you can watch it right here with a clear conscience!
So yeah — worthy, uplifting, you know the kind of thing. I don’t have anything to say about the 442nd that isn’t obvious.