Collision Course: Truman vs. MacArthur (1976)

TV Movie   |    |  Drama, History, War

Collision Course: Truman vs. MacArthur (1976) Poster

U.S. President Harry S Truman and his commander in the Korean War, General Douglas MacArthur, disagree on war strategy. Their conflict comes to a head when Truman relieves the insubordinate MacArthur from command.


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6 April 2017 | rmax304823
| "Fading Away" Too Quickly.
A production by David Wolper, who made programs for adults. E. G. Marshall is President Truman, trying desperately to keep the Korean War under control, and Henry Fonda is General Douglas MacArthur, who would like to do to the Chinese communists what he did to the Japanese in World War II. Their relationship is only a little edgy at first but eventually turns into a fully blown Constitutional issue -- does the civilian authority actually command the military? Answer: Yes.

This isn't a "war movie" of any kind, unlike "MacArthur", the Gregory Peck feature film that replicated the award-winning "Patton." It's a movie made for television and it consists almost entirely of conversations. The sets are offices, parlors, and airplane cabins. I counted three scenes shot outdoors. The scenes of combat are taken from old newsreel footage and repeat themselves.

There's been some criticism of the narrative's historical accuracy and the criticism is justified. A lot of incidents are left out or wrong. But in a sense ninety percent of the film is false because who knows what took place during cabinet meetings or what MacArthur and Truman said to one another in their private meeting at Wake Island? After all, it's not called "private" for nothing. The conversations, though, are plausible enough and make the story more concise. The elisions are sometimes irritating though. There are times when "what gets left out" is important stuff and it's skipped over. For example, there is no announcement that Chinese regulars have crossed the Yalu River in force, just a few seconds of black-and-white footage of Chinese troops and explosions. You can't grasp what's happened until later, and the importance of this development is never really explained. Also left out is some of Truman's more colorful expressions, like his angry references to the "Chinks", the "Yellow Peril," and I think "the heathen Chinee" once when he was talking to reporters and was carried away. And nothing about punching a music critic in the nose for writing a bad review of his daughter Margaret's performance. No, the editing is faulty.

E. G. Marshall makes a pretty peppy Harry Truman. Henry Fonda is not at his best here. He moves very slowly and seems lethargic. There are long pauses before he answers a question or makes a remark. Again, the editor could have cut a few frames and added some verve. And Fonda, we already know, is a nice guy. I hate seeing him play somebody as off the rails as MacArthur turned out to be. The writing doesn't even make it clear just how off the rails he was. A more efficient use of maps would have helped. There simply aren't enough of them.

Yet, despite its weaknesses, this is an important film. In MacArthur's final address to the congress he speaks about how old soldiers never die, they just fade away. (It was turned into a pop song at the time.) I have the sense that this is what's happening to the Korean war. About forty thousand UN troops, mostly American, died in Korea and the total death toll was over one million. That's a lot of people, more people than live in San Francisco, for instance. I suppose we don't like to think about it too much because it ended not in victory but in a stalemate. The North and South signed an armistice, not a peace treaty, so technically they're still at war.

This wasn't a war movie, but not enough attention is given to the geopolitical context. I doubt if many high school kids know what side was which, or even where Korea IS. A recent poll revealed that one out of five couldn't name the country we achieved our independence from. Wrong answers included Mexico, France, and China. History teachers should consider showing this in class.

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