It’s Memorial Day and as we remember those Americans who fought and died for our country, we should also remember that many of these soldiers were Asian Americans. Hollywood has produced its share of war movies, but when you usually see Asian faces in them, they are that of the enemy. However, here are five films that buck that pattern and acknowledge the existence of Asian Americans in the U.S. military. In no particular order:
1) WE WERE SOLDIERS (2002)
Director: Randall Wallace
When Asians appear in a Vietnam War film, they are almost always the faceless, pajama-clad bad guys. But in this big screen account of the 1965 Battle of la Drang, Wallace and a pre-mental breakdown Mel Gibson not only portray the Vietcong with more depth than in previous Hollywood movies, but also include the character of Jimmy Nakayama, a real-life Japanese American soldier who fought and died by friendly fire on the battlefield. Played by Honorary Offender/Tokyo Drift villain Brian Tee, Nakayama’s on screen death includes a poignant moment where he asks a reporter to tell his wife and newborn child that he loves them–succinctly driving home the film’s signature line with an emotional wallop that humanizes the cost of war.
2) PORK CHOP HILL (1959)
Director: Lewis Milestone
Milestone was no stranger to war flicks, having directed the 1930 WWI classic All Quiet on the Western Front. This time he turns his attention to the Korean War and the infamous 1953 Battle of Pork Chop Hill. Gregory Peck plays Lt. Joe Clemons who leads the infantry tasked with recapturing the hill from Chinese Communists even though he knows they are outnumbered and outgunned. And at his side is George Shibata playing the real-life Lt. Suki Okashi, Clemons’ right hand man. What’s amazing is that in 1959, Hollywood gave us a film that showed us an Asian American soldier who was not only courageous but possessed a biting wit. When asked by Clemons if he will lead a unit on what will most likely be a suicide mission, Okashi’s perfectly deadpan reply of, “I never volunteer. Let’s just say I accept your kind offer,” tells us all we need to know about the soul of this soldier.
3) CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER (2011)
Director: Joe Johnston
Based on the popular Marvel Comics character, last summer’s adaptation of scrawny-patriot-turned-superhero Steve Rogers kept the series’ original World War II setting and included the elite American military unit, The Howling Commandos. Joining the H.C.’s ranks was Nisei soldier Jim Morita (played by Kenneth Choi whom you can also catch in our upcoming YOMYOMF Network series The 117). We may not have learned a whole lot about Morita in the film, but his presence as part of Captain America’s team was a nice nod to the Japanese American soldiers who fought and died for the U.S. despite the prevalent racism of the day that led to the incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans in internment camps. And lest you mistake Morita for the enemy, remember—he’s from Fresno, Ace.
4) THE STEEL HELMET (1951)
Director: Samuel Fuller
In my opinion, no other Hollywood director has shown such a genuine interest and desire to portray Asian (American) culture accurately on celluloid than Fuller has (read my previous blog on this topic here). And in no other film does this desire come out as strongly as it does in Fuller’s Korean War opus about a disheartened sergeant (Gene Evans), his ragtag unit and the Korean boy they “adopt” (Trivia break: the Korean boy is named Short Round—a name Steven Spielberg later “stole” for the Asian boy Indiana Jones “adopts” in The Temple of Doom). One of Evans’ men is Sgt. Tanaka played by the late Richard Loo. If the inclusion of an All-American Nisei soldier in an early 1950s Hollywood pic wasn’t unusual enough, Fuller gave the character one of the movie’s best scenes—the team captures a North Korean soldier (Harold Fong) who tries to lure Tanaka to his side by playing to his anger at being interned during World War II. This could very well have been the first time American moviegoers saw a frank indictment of the mass incarceration of JAs in the movies, except that 1951 also saw the release of our next film…
5) GO FOR BROKE! (1951)
Director: Robert Pirosh
If it seems like this list is heavy on the Japanese American WWII experience, that’s partly because no other unit in U.S. military history was as highly decorated as the all-Nisei 442nd/100th Battalion. And until my fellow Offender Justin eventually makes his big screen epic on the 442nd, this remains Hollywood’s only celluloid telling of the story of these men who overcame racism to become American heroes. Yes, the lead is white—the lieutenant played by Van Johnson who at first is mistrustful of the Nisei but soon learns to respect them—but the rest of the film is populated by Japanese American veterans who had actually served in the war including Lane Nakano as the sensitive Sam and Henry Nakamura as the pig-loving Tommy. A fitting tribute to the men who served and, in many cases, died for a country that questioned their loyalty.