The Purple Heart

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The Purple Heart
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Lewis Milestone
Written by Jerome Cady
Based onstory
by Darryl F. Zanuck (as Melville Crossman)
Produced byDarryl F. Zanuck
Starring Dana Andrews
Richard Conte
Farley Granger
Kevin O'Shea
Don "Red" Barry
Sam Levene
Trudy Marshall
Cinematography Arthur C. Miller
Edited byDouglas Biggs
Music by Alfred Newman
Distributed by 20th Century Fox
Release date
  • March 8, 1944 (1944-03-08)(New York) [1]
Running time
99 min
CountryUnited States
Box office$1,500,000 [2]

The Purple Heart is a 1944 American black-and-white war film, produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, directed by Lewis Milestone, and starring Dana Andrews, Richard Conte, Don "Red" Barry, Sam Levene and Trudy Marshall. Eighteen-year-old Farley Granger had a supporting role.


The film is a dramatization of the "show trial" of a number of US airmen by the Japanese government during World War II. It is loosely based on the trial of eight US airmen who took part in the April 18, 1942, Doolittle Raid on Japan. Three were later executed and one died as a POW. [3] This film was the first to deal directly with the Japanese treatment of POWs and ran into opposition from the US War Department, which was afraid that such films would provoke reprisals from the Japanese government. [4]


In April 1942, after a raid on Japan, eight American aircrew made up of the crews from two North American B-25 Mitchell bombers, are captured. Capt. Harvey Ross (Dana Andrews), becomes the leader of the captives. Initially, the men are picked up by a local government official who is a Chinese collaborator in a Wang Jingwei controlled section of China. Chinese collaborator delivers the Americans to the Imperial Japanese Army to be put on trial at the Shanghai Police Headquarters. Although international observers and correspondents are allowed to witness the trial, the commanding officer, General Mitsubi (Richard Loo) refuses to allow Karl Kappel (Torben Meyer), the Swiss Consul to contact Washington.

At the start of the trial, Lt. Greenbaum (Sam Levene), an attorney in civilian life (CCNY Law 1939), declares the trial is illegal, as the men are in the military service of their country. When the senior officer Captain Ross refuses to answer the demands of the sly General Mitsubi to reveal the location of their aircraft carrier, the general decides to break the men. The airmen endure harsh interrogation and torture from the Japanese guards with Sgt. Jan Skvoznik (Kevin O'Shea) left in a catatonic state with a permanent head twitch. In court, the men see the pitiful state of Skvoznik. Lts. Canelli (Richard Conte) and Vincent (Don "Red" Barry) rush the Japanese general, quickly felled by rifle butts and are returned to their cell. Canelli, an artist, suffers a broken right hand and arm. Vincent ends up in a catatonic state much like Skvoznik. Sgt. Clinton (Farley Granger) returns seemingly unharmed, but the Japanese have ruptured his vocal cords, and he is unable to speak. The Japanese have a listening device in the cell when Greenbaum (Sam Levene) repeats what the speechless Clinton writes. If anything happens to Lt. Bayforth (Charles Russell), he will tell all. After being tortured, Bayforth returns with his hands and arms useless, covered in black rubber gloves.

In the face of his captives' unshakable resolve and the realization that the Japanese are doomed to destruction, the sadistic General Mitsubi ultimately chooses to shoot himself. The systematic torture and abuse the airmen endured while in captivity, and their final humiliation of being tried, convicted and executed as war criminals is unveiled to the world.


Dana Andrews (left) and Richard Loo Dana Andrews Richard Loo Purple Heart 1944.jpg
Dana Andrews (left) and Richard Loo


Appearing in model form at the beginning of The Purple Heart, the B-25 "Mrs. Murphy" was a fictionalized example of one of the Doolittle Raider bombers. Screen shot The Purple Heart.png
Appearing in model form at the beginning of The Purple Heart, the B-25 "Mrs. Murphy" was a fictionalized example of one of the Doolittle Raider bombers.

Principal photography for The Purple Heart began on October 11, 1943 and continued to mid-January 1944. [5] Zanuck and a team of writers endeavoured to ensure that the story was based on documentation and unofficial collaboration of the torture suffered by the prisoners, and "... should be almost documentary in its honesty ..." [6] The United States Office of War Information (OWI) reviewed the script and was able to suggest some changes to strengthen the role of the Chinese civilians who had helped the Doolittle Raiders. [7]

The Purple Heart was a work of wartime propaganda that had a stereotypical portrayal of the Japanese (usually by actors of non-Japanese origin) as sadistic tyrants trying to wrest the secret of their aircraft carrier's location during torture sessions. [8] The 16 air crews did arrive over Japan from the USS Hornet (CV-8). President Franklin D. Roosevelt said the crews came from Shangri-La, a fictional place described in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by British author James Hilton. The USS Shangri-La (CV-38) was commissioned in 1944.

The Purple Heart was based on the real-life story of eight Doolittle Raiders who were captured from two different crews: Lieutenants Dean E. Hallmark, Robert J. Meder, Chase Nielsen, William G. Farrow, Robert L. Hite and George Barr, and Corporals Harold A. Spatz and Jacob DeShazer. Three Doolittle Raiders (Farrow, Hallmark and Spatz) were executed by the Imperial Japanese Army, while Meder died of disease in prison. [9] In September 1945, after the Japanese surrender, the four survivors of the trial were repatriated back to the U.S. While three became regular civilians, Doolittle Raider Jacob DeShazer would return to Japan to be a minister. [10]

The Purple Heart concluded with a speech where Dana Andrews as Capt. Harvey Ross declares that he now knew that he had understood the Japanese less than he had thought, and that they did not know Americans if they thought this would frighten them. [3] [Note 1]

At the time of its release, the war in the Pacific was still raging and there was little concern for such excesses. The December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was still fresh in the minds of the American public. In later years, many of the principal players, including Dana Andrews, came to express regret over the more distasteful aspects of the film.


Released during the war, The Purple Heart inspired theatre patrons to purchase thousands of dollars of War Bonds, and opened to good reviews. The review in Variety reflected the times; "... an intensely moving piece, spellbinding, though gory at times, gripping and suspenseful for the most part." [12] Bosley Crowther, the film reviewer of The New York Times , cautiously endorsed the film's patriotic message. "... an overpowering testimonial it is, too—a splendid tribute to the bravery of young men who have maintained their honor and dignity despite the brutal tortures of the Japanese; and a shocking and debasing indictment of the methods which our enemies have used. Americans cannot help but view this picture with a sense of burning outrage—and hearts full of pride and admiration for our men who have so finely fought and died." [11] Harrison's Reports wrote, "A powerful drama, it grips one throughout." [13] David Lardner of The New Yorker called "impressive" the "sheer imagination called for" to make a film about an event that happened in a country at a time when it could not be filmed on location. He also praised the performances of the leads as "convincing". However, he identified a drawback in that the film's events were overly "squeezed into too small a confinement of space and time" in order to serve dramatic purposes. [14]

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  1. A fictionalized exchange takes place. General Mitsubi tells Captain Ross, "The Japanese people worship the Emperor and will die for him." Mitsubi asks Ross, "is the white man willing to make the sacrifices of the Japanese people in total war." After news arrives of the "Fall of Corregidor on May 6, 1942, the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy celebrate with a gleeful sword dance. General Mitsubi tells Captain Ross that General Mac Arthur is a coward to leave his defeated forces. Ross says, "General Mac Arthur has his orders, we have ours." [11]


  1. "The Purple Heart". American Film Institute . Retrieved February 26, 2016.
  2. Aubrey Solomon, Twentieth Century-Fox: A Corporate and Financial History Rowman & Littlefield, 2002 p 220
  3. 1 2 Dower 1987, p. 50.
  4. Koppes and Black 1987, p. 267.
  5. "Original print information: The Purple Heart (1944)." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: December 15, 2014.
  6. Koppes and Black 1987, p. 268.
  7. Koppes and Black 1987, p. 270.
  8. Koppes and Black 1987, pp. 268, 271.
  9. Shepherd, Joel. "1942: Doolittle Raid Aircrews." USS Enterprise CV-6. Retrieved: December 15, 2014.
  10. Goldstein, Richard. "Jacob DeShazer, Bombardier on Doolittle Raid, Dies at 95." The New York Times , March 23, 2008.
  11. Crowther, Bosley. "The Purple Heart (1944)." The New York Times, March 9, 1944.
  12. "The Purple Heart." Variety, December 31, 1943.
  13. "'The Purple Heart' with Dana Andrews and Sam Levene". Harrison's Reports : 36. February 26, 1944.
  14. Lardner, David (March 11, 1944). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker . New York: F-R Publishing Corp.: 74, 76.


  • Dower. John W. War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War . New York: Pantheon Books, 1987. ISBN   978-0-07541-652-4.
  • Koppes, Clayton R. and Gregory D. Black. Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies. New York, The Free Press, 1987. ISBN   978-1-86064-605-8.