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November 29, 2011

Three Stripes in the Sun

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Richard Murphy - 1955
Columibia Pictures Archives DVD

I'm not too optimistic about the chances of ever seeing King Vidor's Japanese War Bride. Donald Richie made sure that film was not included in a King Vidor retrospective presented by the Museum of Modern Art, back in the Seventies. In the meantime, there is Three Stripes in the Sun, perhaps less meaningful as a more modest production from a filmmaker of decidedly less reputation. The film is worth seeing in terms of how it deals with interracial love at a time when Hollywood was tiptoeing around the subject.

The basically true story is about an American soldier stationed in Japan in 1949. A survivor of the attack at Pear; Harbor, Hugh O'Reilly doesn't want anything to do with Japan or any Japanese people. When the Japanese man O'Reilly mistakes as having stolen his wallet turns out to be a priest, O'Reilly is ordered to make amends by driving the priest back to his orphanage outside Osaka. Coming along to show the way is Yuko, a young Japanese woman who works as a translator for the army brass. It's a bit of Irish and Hollywood blarney as O'Reilly makes it his mission to build a new orphanage, feed the children, and eventually fall in love with Yuko.

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Part of the film was shot in and around Osaka, and the Japanese characters are all played by Japanese actors. From a historical perspective, Three Stripes in the Sun is a fairly progressive film. Even though the production code was starting to crumble, it could be that with a relatively lower budget, Richard Murphy was able to tread where the higher profile and more expensive films dare not go. While we don't actually see Aldo Ray and Mitsuko Kimura kiss, they are filmed in such a way that the viewer assumes they could be locking lips, or at least puckering up face to face. There is even brief discussion that racial prejudice exists in the United States. There is that grain of salt, that this is the story of an American military man with a Japanese woman, Madama Butterfly with a happy ending, with a white male protagonist and the exotic other female. For Hollywood, the other shoe wouldn't drop for another four years, when Sam Fuller's The Crimson Kimono showed Victoria Shaw choosing James Shigeta over Glenn Corbett.

Richard Murphy directed only two films. The second, The Wackiest Ship in the Army is as mildly amusing as the title. Murphy's main distinction was as a screenplay writer. Twice, the Writers Guild of America nominated Murphy for screenplays, ". . . Dealing Most Ably with Problems of the American Scene". The movies in question were Panic in the Streets and Cry of the City. Murphy was also nominated twice for Oscars, once for another film directed by Elia Kazan, Boomerang!. Having taken time off from Hollywood to fight in the Pacific during World War II seems to have made a major impact, so that whether Three Stripes in the Sun came as an assignment, or as a project he pitched for himself, Murphy had the credentials to make a film with a military setting and one addressing a topical issue.

The real Hugh O'Reilly looked more like William Schallert than Aldo Ray. Of course Ray was a star at Columbia Pictures back in the Fifties. Historical accuracy aside, Ray also arguably looks like an imagined American, tall, blond and not the least subtle. When Ray pushes his way through the crowds of Japanese citizens in the beginning of the film, he could well be playing up on the Japanese perception of their Yankee "guests". In supporting roles, there are Chuck Connors and Dick York before finding stardom on the television. Does anyone know what happened to Mitsuko Kimura? Three Stripes in the Sun appears to be her last film. The only other films to her credit are are small, independent film from 1952, Itsu Itsu made mo, also about an American G.I. in love with a young Japanese woman, and two films notable for having screenplays by Kaneto Shindo and Nagisa Oshima. Kimura's biggest claim to fame was appearing on the cover of Life magazine.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at November 29, 2011 08:54 AM