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The Boston Globe



5 films inspired by the War in the Pacific

From the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, to the atomic bomb that destroyed Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945, the War in the Pacific inspired both savagery and heroism, displaying humanity at its best and worst. Here are five great films that try to do it justice.

They Were Expendable (1945)

  • Things were looking bad in the opening months of the war, and John Ford’s account of the flimsy US PT boats that took on the Japanese Imperial Navy captures the valor and desperation of those days. The film’s acclaimed verisimilitude gets a boost from cast member and co-director Robert Montgomery (left, with Donna Reed and John Wayne), who actually commanded one such vessel during the war.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

  • The ordeal of Alec Guinness’s Colonel Nicholson (left, with William Holden and Jack Hawkins) standing in the sun, the irrepressible whistling of “Colonel Bogey March,” the “madness” of the final scene — there are many reasons David Lean’s epic endures as one of the greatest war movies. For me, it’s the moment a soldier hesitates before killing an enemy — recognizing him as a terrified boy just like himself.

Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

Fires on the Plain (1959)

  • A decimated Japanese unit tries to survive as Americans mop up in the Philippines near the end of the war, degenerating from disciplined soldiers into a desperate rabble. Kon Ichikawa doesn’t shrink from showing war as a spiraling nightmare of starvation, atrocity, and cannibalism.

Globe File Photo

Hell in the Pacific (1968)

  • Like David Lean, John Boorman attempts to comprehend the war by reducing it to a microcosm. A Japanese officer (Toshirô Mifune, right) and a US pilot (Lee Marvin), stranded on a deserted island, waver between conflict and cooperation. The dilemma challenges their humanity, for better and worse.

Merie W. Wallace

Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Letters From Iwo Jima (2006)

  • Clint Eastwood’s rendering of 1945 battle takes the point of view of both sides in this complementary pair of pictures. “Flags,” the American version, deconstructs the making of the iconic flag-raising photo; “Letters” depicts the last days of Japanese troops fighting to the death in caves. In both accounts, puffed-up patriotism gives way to tragedy and valor. (Pictured: Ken Watanabe in “Letters From Iwo Jima.”)

  • COMING UP: J. R. R. Tolkien and Peter Jackson return with “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” (opens Dec. 13), yet another fantasy-adventure blockbuster. What are the best films in the genre? And looking ahead another week, “47 Ronin” (opens Dec. 25) remakes Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1941 sword-wielding classic. What are your favorite samurai movies? Cast your votes at

  • Peter Keough can be reached at

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