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Josef von Sternberg,
Begins in documentary style when U. S. Army General Mark Clark authenticates Claire Phillips' adventures and achievements, as an American citizen who rendered invaluable services to her country in Manila during the Japanese occupation, and at the end, when she is presented a medal by a Presidential representative: Claire Phillips, a café entertainer in Manila, marries a U.S. soldier on December 8, 1941, after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, and when he is killed fighting the Japanese invasion of the Phillipines, she returns to her calling as a means of obtaining and transmitting to the American and Filipino guerillas information, supplies and services which the Filipino underground uses in its aid to the Allied forces fighting the Japanese invaders. She has narrow escapes from detection and detention, until she is finally exposed as a spy, arrested, convicted and imprisoned. Written by
Les Adams <email@example.com>
It would seem evident that the woman decorated at the end of the movie was the real Claire Phillips. Three could be no other reason for director Lesley Selander using a woman other than Ann Dvorak in this scene. See more »
Heroes of Philippine espionage who was Claire Phillips?
Based on real events, "I Was an American Spy" is several stories in one of valor and heroism. It is a unique film that includes spying, underground resistance, sabotage, and help for escapees and prisoners. It's a story about one of America's most successful volunteer spies in WWII a rare example of Allied espionage in the Pacific theater. And, it is one of the best films about resistance to the Japanese by Philippine men and women.
Many books have been written and films made about spying and underground resistance to the Nazis in Europe. But very few such examples exist with the Japanese in WW II. So, this film has added historical value as well.
Others have commented on the movie plot, but I'll share some of the information I got when I tried to find out more about the all but forgotten hero of this film. Claire Phillips (nee, Snyder) was born in Michigan in 1908, but grew up in Portland, OR, where she graduated from high school. She joined a circus for a time, was a nightclub singer and was drawn to the theater. She joined a troupe that went to the Orient to play major cities. She landed in Manila for a few years where she married a Filipino and had a daughter, Dian. After five years, she divorced and returned to her home in Portland with her daughter. She became bored after several months and returned with Dian to Manila. That was in the fall of 1941. She married an American Army sergeant, John Phillips, during the Japanese invasion in December.
The movie is about her life during that time until the end of the war. After the war, she and her daughter returned to Portland where she lived for the rest of her life. She received many honors and recognitions at home. Articles were written about her and she appeared on radio programs (TV wasn't widely available until after 1950). She received a free deed and keys to a new home in Beaverton, OR.
In 1947, she wrote a book, "Manila Espionage," about her life and exploits during the war. This 1951 movie was based on her book and a magazine article. In 1951, she received the Medal of Freedom from the U.S. the only woman who was honored based on the recommendation of General Douglas MacArthur. While some 200 total awards of the Medal of Freedom were made for WWII and Korea, most of those were to people from other nations for their heroics in helping Americans.
But after a few years in the limelight, Phillips became restless and dissatisfied with working in a department store. She married again, and divorced. She became a heavy drinker and within nine years after the movie came out, Claire Phillips died of meningitis. She was 52.
There was some interest in Portland in 2011 in providing a permanent memorial to this WWII hero. One can wonder why that wasn't done in the past. While her heroic efforts during the war have been honored, could there be other things about her life that most citizens would not want to hold up for people to model? My guess is that the answer is "Yes!" based on articles available online, and considerable changes or glossing over in the movie.
For instance, magazine and newspaper accounts refer to Phillips as the "Manila Mata Hari." Yet, the movie shows her as a proper woman who runs a respectable club. In reality, her Tsubaki Club, was a high-priced, high class nightclub and brothel. Articles describe the girls and the matron performing for their high-ranking Japanese clients. Also, in the late 1950s, Phillips sued the U.S. government for $146,850 in compensation for her work. She received just $1,349 and the U.S. Claims Court decision read, "Much of her story was greatly exaggerated and at times almost fanciful."
"I Was an American Spy" has one big fault what seems to be a clear Hollywood altering of the story that detracts from the film. In several early scenes, Phillips tries to follow and find her husband who had to report to his unit on the front lines. Her character, played by Ann Dvorak, is almost hysterical when she insists she wants to go with him. In real life, Phillips had been around the American forces for years at Manila. She would have known that families don't go off to war with the troops. Common sense tells most of us that. And Phillips was not such a naive person as that.
So, why would Hollywood alter her story to put this tripe in it? My guess is to paint a picture of the heroin precisely as a naive, innocent and clean person before the start of the war. That would also explain how the movie then accounts for her change of character to someone who could kill and spy on the Japanese herself. We see a fictional scene in which she watches the Bataan death march and sees her husband shot and killed for stopping to drink from a well. After crying over her husband's body, she picks up a gun and shoots several times killing a very elderly Japanese soldier who came out of nowhere with his rifle slung over his shoulder. Totally unbelievable!
This film could have scored a 10 if the film makers had cut most of the opening hide-and-go-seek scenes, and instead replaced them with more scenes of the real underground help and resistance efforts. That would also have shown more of the deserving honor of the Filipinos, several of whom worked for Phillips.
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