Emperor, directed by Peter Webber, 2012, 98 minutes
Hyde Park on Hudson, directed by Roger Mitchell, 2012, 94 minutes
Anything not older than a half century past is not history but current events, a fact often lost on Hollywood. So perhaps we should be grateful for these two interesting though flawed dramatizations of the World War II era.
Emperor, which has been generally and justly panned , concerns the early U.S. occupation of Japan and the decision as to whether or not to depose its emperor. The scenes of immediate postwar Japan and the efforts of the Americans to negotiate with the inscrutable leaders of the defeated empire, resulting in the preservation but de-sanctification of the imperial head of state, are well handled. The central character is General Bonner Fellers, charged by MacArthur with the negotiation. Fellers is given a great romance with a Japanese girl, based on what was apparently in real life only an acquaintance. And since Fellers, later on in the Cold War era, became a notorious “rightwing extremist,” one wonders that he is made something of a hero in this day and time.
The great flaw in the film is the portrayal of MacArthur by Tommy Lee Jones. It is vastly inferior to that of Gregory Peck in “MacArthur” (1977). Hollywood moguls are almost all the children of the New Immigration and have no feel for Old American strains. MacArthur, despite the Celtic name and a Southern mother and wife, belonged to the Northern WASP elite. Tommy Lee Jones forte is that of rough but complicated Southwesterner. He would make a great Andrew Jackson or Bedford Forrest, Harry Truman or LBJ, but he is too down-home for MacArthur.
Further, the portrayal of MacArthur is subtly negative, emphasizing deviousness and self-promotion. Maybe some of this is true, and it has often been charged. But was not MacArthur’s posturing a valuable rallying of American morale in awful times, and is not a certain canniness necessary for any great leader? American society is no longer capable of producing great soldiers like MacArthur, Patton, and Gavin, great admirals like Halsey and Nimitz, or even great managers like Eisenhower. MacArthur, after all, was a great man. Look at what has passed for military leadership in the last few decades—Alexander Haig, William Westmoreland, Colin Powell, Wesley Clark—posturing bureaucrats all. Any third-string glamour boy will be sufficient for their future portrayals
The best aspect of Hyde Park on Hudson is its portrayal of FDR’s infidelities. One wonders how long it will be, if ever, for Hollywood to get around to a similar treatment of Kennedy and Clinton. Bill Murray makes a great try at being FDR, but is less successful than the Brit Kenneth Branagh in Warm Springs (2005). Samuel West as George VI is truer, as well as more appealing , in my always humble opinion, than Colin Firth in the celebrated The King’s Speech (2010). The Brit Olivia Williams, though having far too much presence and beauty for the part, does about as good a job as might be done with Eleanor Roosevelt, whose flaccid grotesqueness can never be replicated. A similar problem will arise in the future with Hillary Clinton.
In the space, in print and online, that Chronicles has so generously allowed for my amateur and eccentric comments on cinema, I recently remarked on the deceitful prettification of most movie portrayals of Lincoln. To the contrary, the casting of Civil War figures in Ronald Maxwell’s masterpieces Gettysburg and Gods and Generals is excellent, obviously produced from a real feel for the American past. Jeff Daniels as Joshua Chamberlain and Tom Berenger as General Longstreet were perfection. (Berenger, possibly among the most unaclaimed American stars, also does a very creditable Teddy Roosevelt in Rough Riders, 1997.) I thought Martin Sheen in Gettysburg was as good as we are likely to get for Lee, who no living person can possibly impersonate truly. This opinion, for which I barely escaped tar and feathers, was unpopular down South. Many down this way welcomed Robert Duval as Lee in the prequel, Gods and Generals. These opinions have more to do with present day likes and dislikes than with the performances, I suspect. Duval, like Jones, is a different kind of American than R.E. Lee. He plays Lee as too old for the time, with the wrong variety of Southern accent, and more like a sophisticated redneck than an aristocratic military genius and matchless leader of men.
I have also several times called attention to the fact that the portrayal of Americans has been pervasively taken over by Brits and their Commonwealth kin. This seems to me a significant observation about the poor state of American culture, although nobody else has seemed to notice. Examples are countless. For just one, two Australians as the leads in Hemingway and Gellhorn (2012). Of course, it does not always work. In the recent silly potboiler Liz and Dick, Lindsay Lohan does probably as well as may be with Elizabeth Taylor, while the Aussie/Kiwi Grant Bowler is a total flop as Richard Burton . Make of that what you will.
Clyde N. Wilson is the Emeritus Distinguished Professor of History at the University of South Carolina and a Contributing Editor to Chronicles. Dr. Wilson is best known as the editor of the 28-volume documentary edition of The Papers of John C. Calhoun. He is the author or editor of a dozen other books—including Carolina Cavalier: The Life and Mind of James Johnston Pettigrew and Defending Dixie: Essays in Southern History and Culture—and has published over 700 articles, essays, and reviews. He is also the co-owner of Shotwell Publishing.