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SHOW OF THE WEEK

March 03, 1985

"AMERICAN CAESAR," Sunday 8-11 p.m., Monday 8-10 p.m. (11)--KTTV labels it a "miniseries."

But this two-part production about the life and times of Douglas MacArthur is no docudrama. It is instead a documentary or, more precisely, five hours of "docutainment," a fascinating, finely crafted, tough-minded and vibrant biography based on William Manchester's book about America's most intriguing, epic soldier.

The Cineworld production is also available via cable in one-hour segments at 5 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday on Atlanta SuperStation WTBS.

War documentaries can be deadly. No chance of that here, though. MacArthur's military career appears to have been a self-orchestrated crescendo broken by occasional setbacks, a series of melodramas and curtain calls in which this "thundering paradox," as Manchester calls him, sought self glorification along with military victories.

He succeeded at both.

We meet MacArthur as the defender of the Philippines in the early days of World War II and follow his remarkable post-war career: his reshaping of Japan, his dismissal by President Truman and his failure to gain the 1952 Republican Presidential nomination.

Host John Huston appears on camera--sometimes disconcertingly--articulating MacArthur's own florid words against a background of newsreel footage and personal recollections.

Like all epic figures, MacArthur is a different man to different people, a giant to some, an empty demagogue to others. The producers (John McGreevy, Ian McLeod, Mike Fehely and Ron Kelly) present a supreme military strategist and egoist. They present a man who viewed war as almost a religion, a warrior/romantic who displayed great courage, but also exaggerated his own contributions and downplayed those of his colleagues, a man who resented that the war in Europe took precedence over his war in the Pacific.

"Wherever MacArthur was fighting, that had to be the No. 1 enemy," Manchester says. "He couldn't play on the second team."

MacArthur was an image-making actor who didn't smoke his famous corncob pipe so much as he wore it. He went nowhere without his personal publicity force. Who can forget the most famous picture of all? There is MacArthur fulfilling his promise to return to the Philippines, dramatically wading ashore--as they rehearsed it numerous times for the newsreel cameras.

"I wouldn't say MacArthur thought he was divine," Manchester says. "But he was very close."

MacArthur called his ex-subordinate Dwight D. Eisenhower "the best clerk I ever had." And Ike returned the snipe, saying about MacArthur: "I studied dramatics under him."

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