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Television Review

'MacArthur' Portrait Reveals the Complexities


"MacArthur" the theatrical movie is most notable for Gregory Peck's convincing work in the lead role. One could argue, though, that Douglas MacArthur gave a better performance in living his life than Peck did portraying him.

"When you speak of the theater of war, he was the producer, the director, the star actor--and he played it to the limit," historian Edwin H. Simmons says in "MacArthur," the striking two-part documentary that Austin Hoyt made for "The American Experience" on PBS.

"MacArthur" is better than Hoyt's earlier PBS film about Ronald Reagan largely because its subject is vastly more interesting and darkly complex. Or as another historian notes, MacArthur was "a tremendously great man with tremendously great weaknesses."

One of those rare epic figures who appears to have altered the course of history by sheer force of will, MacArthur is best known for fulfilling his vow to the war-ravaged Philippines in 1942 that, "I shall return," and for being fired by President Truman as commander of UN forces in Korea after a series of clashes with the chief executive. He may have been America's greatest soldier, says Gen. Vernon A. Walters, but "he didn't fully understand that in the United States it's the president who makes national policy."

Yet MacArthur returned home as a hero, getting a ticker-tape parade and chance to address Congress and tell lawmakers in a memorable speech, "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away."

But fading away was not the style of this brilliant five-star general whose mind was on politics throughout much of an ego-marred military career in which his personal film crew recorded shot after shot of that famous profile, campaign cap covering the baldness, corncob pipe in his mouth, his gaze forward as if envisioning possibilities beyond the sight lines of mortals.

Running nearly four hours, this is just about the definitive MacArthur, and never more fascinating than when freshly examining its subject's pivotal post-war role, as supreme commander of occupied Japan, in cleansing Emperor Hirohito's record and preventing him from being tried as a war criminal.

Clearly, MacArthur had the magic, even though something appeared to be missing. "A colleague during the Pacific War described him as someone who combined a sense of courage, vanity, ego and insight," says historian Michael Schaller. "But his greatest fault was mistaking his emotions and ambitions for principles, and he could never distinguish between the two."

* "MacArthur: Destiny" airs at 9 tonight, while "MacArthur: The Politics of War" airs Tuesday at 9 p.m., on KCET. The network has rated both segments TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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