top of page

Letter To a Friend: Favorite WWII Movies About the Pacific War

A lifelong friend recently started watching The Pacific mini-series with his teenaged son. We were exchanging emails about it the other day, and knowing my interest in the history of WWII in the Pacific theater and war movies in general, he asked what my favorite movies in that genre were...

Hey buddy,

Great question about my favorite “Pacific movies.” Off the top of my head, Tora! Tora! Tora! that we discussed last week, is certainly one — albeit, maybe not about the grunt fighting you (may) have in mind.

Honestly, nothing I can think of is up there with The Pacific series for good grunt-level stuff with modern authenticity. The Thin Red Line always bores me to tears when I try to watch it. The James Jones book does too. (Much as I love From Here To Eternity.) Guess I’m just a knuckle-dragging heathen.

One of my all-time favorites is the John Ford classic from 1945 — They Were Expendable. It’s about the PT Boats in the Philippines in late '41, early ’42, and the early war debacle days. It could be considered a movie analogue to that great book by John Toland, "But Not in Shame: The Six Months After Pearl Harbor," that JFK loved. Great book.

Anyway, it’s still a freaking beautiful movie; actually makes me emotional in a few scenes watching it, and holds up much better than many movies of that era do.

Ward Bond, Robert Montgomery, and John Wayne contemplate the future in They Were Expendable

Remember what Orson Welles said about his preparation for being a newbie director before Citizen Kane ?

‘John Ford was my teacher. My own style has nothing to do with his, but Stagecoach was my movie textbook. I ran it over forty times … I wanted to learn how to make movies, and that’s such a classically perfect one.’

John Ford filming They Were Expendable

Welles also famously said his most most admired director was Ford. He said he favored "...the old masters. By which I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford."

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison is a cool movie that captures the sense of isolation as well as the vast distances of the Pacific War, and also the monastic quality of the eternal lifer in the Marine Corps.

Robert Mitchum plays a hard-bitten Marine scout sniper Corporal named Allison who is washed up on a deserted Central Pacific island - stranded, of course - with a beautiful nun played by Deborah Kerr (a few years after the famous beach scene in From Here To Eternity).

Get it? They’re both kind of like a couple of monks "married" to their respective orders (God and the church for her and the USMC for him) so they can’t REALLY fall in love or have a life together after they leave the island...

Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr

Okay, that one is getting pretty far out there, but it’s a neat movie, and they constantly have to evade a bunch of Japanese troops who invade their perfect little island for two. Suspense! Chills! It’s another one (in color, from 1957 IIRC) that is way ahead of its time. Not a grunt action movie per se, but a great “mood” Pacific war movie. If you’re in the mood.

Oh, and did I mention it was directed by a fairly good director named John Huston?

Lee Marvin, a real PTSD-affected WWII Marine infantry vet, made another great “mood” movie about isolation and the war in the Pacifc in the 1966-ish Hell in the Pacific. He’s stranded on an island (I think, IIRC, he’s supposed to be a Navy or Marine pilot who is shot down) with - you guessed it - a Japanese soldier sharing his little island paradise.

Lee Marvin and Toshira Mifune square off in Hell in the Pacific

They make a truce to co-exist in peace (spoiler alert, it doesn’t hold for long) and overall, it’s a good movie about how suspicious of, and mean as hell we can be to our fellow man and vice versa.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is another good, classic 1940s Pacific war movie. It’s about the 1942 Jimmy Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, of course. Still one of the all time freaking ‘can’t believe they had the balls to do that' mission impossible jobs.

Bomb Japan four months after Pearl Harbor by flying army bombers off a navy aircraft carrier with only enough fuel for a one-way trip—basically a suicide mission—sure, why not?

Van Johnson in the pilot's seat in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo

Paul Tibbets of Enola Gay fame (and one of the great pilots in the US Army Air Forces—and the world— circa 1942-45) once told author Bob Greene that all the Doolittle Raiders were heroes, the real deal.

I enjoyed Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, if you missed them. I thought Letters, which concentrates on the Japanese experience at Iwo, was a better movie. Flags is more rah rah rah American-side sympathetic, of course.

(One of the things I loved about Tora! was how it was really two movies: the Japanese story made by a Japanese film crew, and the American perspective of Pearl Harbor, made by an American film crew. Interestingly, the Japanese sequences in that older movie are much better too.)

Well, this is turning into a book, and I haven’t even really “thought” about it, so I’ll close.


bottom of page