Emperor: When you call a movie “historical,” it helps to include the history part

Here’s a lesson I should have learned by now: Beware of movies claiming to be “based on a true story.”

The trailer for “Emperor” hinted that it would reveal the inside story behind the peace deal reached between Japan and the U.S. after World War II. So, always seeking movies with more substance than special effects, I bought tickets. And, once again, I was disappointed by a movie claiming to be based on historical facts.

It’s an okay-looking movie, with lots of scenery and atmospherics—but rather heavy on fake-looking, post-Atomic-Bomb devastation. There’s a sentimental backstory about the central character—General Bonner Fellers—and his Japanese girlfriend Aya—though it’s not very well developed,  the attraction seems rather unmotivated, and it’s probably all made up, anyway.

But that’s not my chief complaint. I was thinking that, with World War II fading from our collective memory, this would be a chance to find out some of the details of the complicated, culturally sensitive and geo-politically important peace deal hammered out between General Douglas McArthur and the defeated Japanese government. Silly me.

Sure, it’s an interesting twist that General Fellers, charged with deciding whether to prosecute Japan’s Emperor Hirohito as a war criminal—and whether to execute him if convicted—purportedly has a special affinity for and understanding of Japanese culture, because he fell in love with a Japanese exchange student while at college. And, sure, that’s a source of conflict in the story, as at least one of Fellers’ more vindictive colleagues doubts his objectivity and calls him a “Jap lover.”

But so much time is spent on the glacially developing love story, the phony sets and the idyllic pre-War Japanese landscape, that we don’t get much insight at all into the intricacies that surely were involved in negotiating with the tradition-steeped, ritual-bound, formalistic Japanese leaders. You don’t get much insight into the way things must have worked, when the script calls for General Fellers to demand a meeting with a high-ranking Japanese official, and –poof!–then to simply have it happen.

I know that I shouldn’t expect a documentary. But the level of oversimplification in this treatment is very disappointing. A missed opportunity, to say the least.

It’s not as bad as some other “based on historical facts” movies, such as Oliver Stone’s “JFK.” “Emperor’s” sin is that of having left out a lot of details; Oliver Stone has a penchant for creating new facts. (In “JFK,” if I remember correctly, Richard Nixon appears at the Dallas airport, creating a vague impression that Nixon was somehow mixed up in the assassination.)

More recently, Steven Spielberg’s Hollywood version of “Lincoln” served up similar distortions, such as the scene in which black Union soldiers meet Lincoln at the battlefield and recite, verbatim, the Gettysburg address, which Lincoln had delivered only weeks before. It’s a nice, sentimental touch, but not very believable. Nor is the presence of former slaves and even First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln in the Congressional gallery for the vote on the Emancipation Proclamation.

The problem with these movie distortions and omissions is that they can be mistaken for the truth and become part of what is later known as historical fact. In an era when science and fact are mistrusted by many, that’s a dangerous phenomenon, especially for younger audiences, who didn’t live through the events and can’t fact check them via life experience. For example, a few years ago, during a conversation with a very bright high-school student, I discovered that she believed, after having watched “JFK,” that Nixon was, in fact, part of the assassination plot. No doubt, Stone helped create confusion by mixing contemporaneous documentary footage with the storytelling. I’ve heard Stone call his movie-making style “impressionistic.” I call it scary.

In the end, though, the things I’m objecting to in “Emperor” did serve an educational purpose. Knowing that there had to be more to the story, I went home and looked up some facts on:

  • General Bonner Fellers: An actual general, who later served in Congress and was a commie-fearing member of the ultra-right John Birch Society. My research didn’t turn up anything about that romance with Aya, though. And there’s some question about his effectiveness as an intelligence officer earlier in his career.
  • Terms of the Japanese peace deal: Emperor Hirohito was not tried as a war criminal and not executed, not because he was innocent, but mostly because American post-war planners feared that executing him would cause cultural and political chaos in Japan, and because he could play a symbolic role in America’s plan for rebuilding Japan.
  • General Douglas McArthur: As depicted in the movie, McArthur did arrange for an unprecedented photo to be taken of himself with Emperor Hirohito. It was an effective propaganda move that demonstrated to the Japanese people that the Emperor, who was considered a god, was actually a very small man. McArthur also convinced Hirohito to renounce his status as a god-on-earth. (Those interactions would have made an interesting movie by themselves.)

As we watched the credits, my companion suggested that movies claiming to be based on a true story should distribute pamphlets after the movie, with the actual facts. Better yet, how about not doctoring up and Hollywood-ifying inherently intriguing stories and just getting it right in the first place?