The year is 1942: eight American airmen crash-land during the Doolittle bombing raid on Tokyo and are taken prisoner. Though slated for execution, the pilots are put through a “show trial” by the military, on a charge of committing war crimes. The Japanese judges promise to be merciful if only the Americans will reveal vital US military secrets. But Captain Ross speaks for the rest of his melting-pot crew – some of whom have been subjected to the most horrific of tortures – when he chooses death before dishonor. But the Japanese still have a few cards to play. Will any of the men talk?
Continuing right from where I left off…
As for the rest of the eight, while I might not always be able to match names with faces, they all stick out as individuals in my mind. Since The Purple Heart is a relatively short movie (an hour and forty minutes long), and has quite a bit of storyline to wade through, it would’ve been understandable if only a three or four of the cast members had gotten good characterization, but each character is deftly defined through sharp dialogue, flashbacks, and the excellent acting of the cast members themselves. Stoner reciting poetry, Ross’ flashback (‘Red River Valley’ again? Are you KIDDING ME???), Canelli and his family’s dream of another Michelangelo, etc.,etc. It’s easy to see that these men care about each other, what with Ross’ birthday celebration and how ecstatic they all are to find each other again after the plane crashes (Clinton and Greenbaum’s hug is one of the best things ever). The close friendship the eight of them share is amazing, and when they all stand up and cheer after Greenbaum’s speech, I feel like cheering too.
“And now I’ll speak for myself. On the day when you give Skvoznik back his mind, and Vincent his senses. On the day when you restore the use of Canelli’s arms, and Bayforth’s hands. And the day when you give Clinton back his voice…on that day, I’ll tell you what you want to know! And not one second sooner.” —Greenbaum
The inclusion of the international reporters to the plot added an interesting dimension to the film – their whispered comments and significant looks throughout many of the courtroom scenes provide an outsider’s perspective to the trial, which I found intriguing. The film does try to broaden its scope, with the inclusion of the reporters and the efforts of the Swiss Consul – Karl Kappel – to get word about the situation back to the Allies. (And then there was also the matter of that one press guy resigning his position.)
One of my favorite scenes is when they’re all deciding whether or not they should give in and tell the court everything they want to know. Vincent’s memory coming back just a little when they all sing ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’ (and the crowd outside hears it), Ross realizing just how they’re going to go about voting, and then each man dropping in his wings. Broken or unbroken?
The Purple Heart did a number on my nerves the first time I watched it, especially when the whole torture-cycle started, because I already immensely liked all the characters. Seeing them dragged off, not knowing if any of them would die (I was almost positive none of them would talk, but they could die)…it was almost like I was experiencing the same worry and tension that the actual characters were, which I suppose is what the filmmakers wanted. The pressure keeps building and building, so like I mentioned earlier, this is a pretty exhausting film to watch (if you care about the characters, that is), and when Ross makes his final speech, it’s like all the pent-up anger and defiance is pouring out of him and it’s wonderful.
And then they march off and, yes, it’s sad – heartbreaking, even. But it’s also heroic and brave and inspiring; basically the film in a nutshell right there.
Then here’s to our boyhood, its gold and its gray!
The stars of its winter, the dews of its May!
And when we have done with our life-lasting toys,
Dear Father, take care of thy children, the boys! ~‘The Boys’ by Oliver Wendell Holmes