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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

The Purple Heart (1944)



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The greatness of the The Purple Heart is subtle: it is a seemingly small, perfunctory sort of film, but then it takes us by surprise. Its emotional power sneaks up on us, and as we contemplate the film, we realize how insightful it is around the edges.

It's excellently directed, technically proficient, and well acted. Director Lewis Milestone accomplishes a difficult feat by earning our sympathy for thinly defined characters. They are thinly defined for a reason: although they are based on real-life persons, the men of this film, Americans who were caught by the Japanese after bombing Japan in World War II, could be any of the soldiers who served the United States in the war. They could be any of the soldiers who served the United States in any war.

The greatness of this film lies in its depiction of the greatness of its characters and the great sacrifices that ordinary men can and will make for the love of their country. They're not fearless or unflinching, but, like a great many others, they gave everything they had to fight for the freedoms we have today. We cannot ever forget the sacrifices our veterans made for us in wars past. This film is a heartbreaking reminder. I cried through this. I don't mean I got teary-eyed; by the end, I was crying in full. Not from sadness: from overwhelming respect and gratitude.

Perhaps the emotional power of the film stems from how unmanipulative it is. Well, it could be considered manipulative in the sense that, really, all films are manipulative, but The Purple Heart doesn't cheat by employing weepy music and melodramatic prose to accomplish its ends. It plays honestly. The actions of the characters are allowed to speak for themselves. At the end, the film underscores a dramatic scene with an orchestration of "Into the Wild Blue Yonder," a move that could scarcely be more visibly manipulative, but by this time it has earned every ounce of emotion it is shooting for that the moment works.

Moreover, the film is not simplistic in its depiction of the Japanese, nor of the Chinese, who are also involved in this story. Wartime propaganda has a tendency to paint the enemy as parts of a machine, wholly united in mind and spirit. There is none of that here: each character is a unique individual. This simple acknowledgement adds an important level of realism that ultimately adds to the film's power.

And there is more. Brief scenes with members of the international press hint at other sorts of gray areas, for example. I could talk longer about all the little details in the backdrop of this film, but ultimately it's not about all that. It's about the Americans, unjustly on trial in a civil court as war criminals, and the things they endure through it. It's not an easy film to watch, but it's an important one.