Sunday 9 December 2018

Movie Review: MacArthur (1977)

A wartime biopic about the celebrated but controversial general, MacArthur is a plodding effort and never comes close to defining the man or the events he shaped.

It's 1942, and under increasing pressure from dominant Japanese forces, US General Douglas MacArthur (Gregory Peck) reluctantly obeys an order from President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Dan O'Herlihy) to leave the Philippines. His parting words are "I shall return". He relocates to Australia, where he starts to train a fighting force to recapture lost territory in the South Pacific.

US and Australian forces go on the offensive starting in New Guinea. MacArthur deploys a strategy of bypassing and cutting off Japanese strongholds, and starts to turn the tide of war. After debating strategy with Roosevelt and Admiral Chester Nimitz, MacArthur fulfills his promise and lands back in the Philippines in 1944, and oversees the Japanese surrender one year later. But his role in helping to reconstruct post-war Japan is interrupted by a new conflict erupting in Korea.

Directed by Joseph Sargent and co-written by Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins, it's difficult to imagine MacArthur as anything other than a meek and unsuccessful attempt to replicate the impact of Patton (1970). Unfortunately the film takes an interesting subject and does next to nothing with the material. Undercast, underwritten and devoid of any narrative depth, MacArthur recreates key events from the general's World War Two and Korea eras in a perfunctory manner devoid of emotional resonance.

The few positives include one relatively brief scene of self-doubt at the dawn of a major battle, and a few impactful excursions to bloody battlefields.

But otherwise the film is over-dependent on star Gregory Peck making impassioned speeches about nebulous themes like honour, loyalty and country, in the hopelessly misplaced trust that insipid nationalistic statements define a man. The film underplays any other characters or relationships in MacArthur's world. His wife Jean (Marj Dusay) gets to say perhaps 20 words in the entire film. Politicians and other military leaders are reduced to stock representations spouting banal dialogue.

The complexities of a country desperate for heroes elevating MacArthur to mythical status, assisted by his clever self-promotional efforts, are treated with abject superficiality. Equally, MacArthur's political ambitions, and his gradual descent into potentially dangerous self-aggrandizing to the point of creating his own foreign policy and defying political orders, are all treated with oh-well dismissiveness, on the way to another speech opportunity.

MacArthur was a complex leader, but the film is a tactical blunder.

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