American Caesar (1983)

TV Mini-Series  |   |  Documentary, War
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Explores the life and actions of one of America's military legends. Part 1 follows MacArthur from his days as a forgotten hero soldiering in the Philippines on the eve of Pearl Harbor to ... See full summary »

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Credited cast:
Douglas MacArthur ...
 Himself (archive footage)


Explores the life and actions of one of America's military legends. Part 1 follows MacArthur from his days as a forgotten hero soldiering in the Philippines on the eve of Pearl Harbor to the moment when he becomes the last shogun of the new Japan. Part 2 continues as MacArthur converts Japan from a semi-feudal society to a democracy by personally devising a model constitution and sweeping social reforms. Then sent to Korea, he skillfully retreats as China enters the Korean War. Blamed for the sudden reversal, he is relieved of his military duties by President Harry S. Truman and comes home to a hero's welcome which peters out in the din of 1952 presidential politics and the overwhelming popularity of General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Written by Fiona Kelleghan <>

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Enigmatic Caesar
5 June 2014 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

First released in 1983, "American Caesar" is based upon historian and WWII veteran William Manchester's bestselling biography of General Douglas MacArthur. Like the book, the documentary offers a comprehensive but at the same time gripping examination of MacArthur, one of the most famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) generals in American military history.

Easily viewed as a vainglorious and pompous figure, MacArthur was really a complex man who came of age at the same time that the United States came of age as a global superpower. While possessing a romanticized nineteenth century view of warfare, near the end of his life MacArthur denounced all warfare as pointless in the age of atomic weaponry. He was a tactical genius with a highly flexible mind, and on numerous occasions he displayed almost reckless courage in the face of enemy fire. On other occasions, MacArthur was quite incapable of adapting to rapidly changing circumstances, choosing to seclude himself in his headquarters surrounded by staff who pretty much told MacArthur information that MacArthur wanted to hear. MacArthur's defeat in the Philippines, for example, while perhaps inevitable considering the situation facing the U.S. after Pearl Harbor, was accentuated by MacArthur's hasty retreat to the Bataan Peninsula in January 1942 (tons of vital food and ammunition had to be destroyed or abandoned because of this hasty retreat). MacArthur's costly misreading of the Chinese military situation during the Korean War would lead to an intense and bitter political exchange with President Harry S. Truman, who ended up firing MacArthur for disobedience.

MacArthur is of course well known for both his military accomplishments and his military (and especially political) failures. Perhaps his most significant accomplishments, however, occurred when he was given the enormous political task of rebuilding Japan after World War II, a task for which he truly deserves the title "American Caesar." MacArthur presided over a country of over eighty million starving and destitute citizens, a country devastated from years of American aerial bombing and naval blockade. As an American "shogun" (the word "shogun" actually refers to a military commander appointed by the Japanese emperor to directly rule over the country in the emperor's place), MacArthur presided over one of the most significant transformations of the twentieth century. The post-WWII Japanese constitution (including Article IX - which prevents Japan from maintaining a strong military force) was in fact heavily influenced by MacArthur and is arguably one of his most significant achievements in Japan.

Interspersed throughout "American Caesar" are interviews from various friends and associates of MacArthur as well as from biographer William Manchester. Acclaimed film-maker John Huston (in one of his last appearances before his death in 1987), serves as the voice of MacArthur. Huston's distinctive voice-over of MacArthur colors "American Caesar" in much the same way that historian Shelby Foote colors Ken Burn's Civil War series. While much emphasis is put on MacArthur's military career, there are also some notable anecdotes about MacArthur's personal life. His romantic affair with Eurasian actress Elizabeth Cooper, for example, resulted in MacArthur having to pay her $15,000 in order to avoid a scandal in the papers (Dwight D. Eisenhower, who during the 1920's and 30's served as Douglas MacArthur's aide, allegedly delivered the money to Cooper).

Overall, "American Caesar" offers (and in a relatively concise 4 hours) a quite comprehensive and nuanced but at the same time entertaining look at Douglas MacArthur, a general who in his famous Congressional speech remarked that "old soldiers never die, they just fade away." Perhaps MacArthur's memory has faded in the American historical mind in much the same way that this documentary has faded from television. A closer look at Douglas MacArthur, however, reveals a person full of the complexities and contradictions that continue to shape America's foreign relations in Asia.

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