Film sparks debate

On Feb. 26, Legion Family members attending The American Legion’s 53rd annual Washington Conference watched a special screening of a new feature film, "Emperor," airing nationwide in theaters March 8. "Emperor" tells the story of Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Brig. Gen. Bonner Fellers’ critical mission to determine the fate of Emperor Hirohito, who approved the attack on Pearl Harbor that led to Japan and the United States being drawn into World War II.

Hirohito was spared punishment for crimes committed by his empire, a decision that was politically unpopular among many Americans. However, a movie about the unpopular decision and winning peace in Japan after a horrific war had not been produced until now.

Oscar-winner Tommy Lee Jones plays the role of MacArthur, while Matthew Fox — from TV series "Lost" and "Party of Five" — plays the role of Fellers. The film "is a story of strong men with forward-thinking vision, who were not seduced by the political and emotional feelings of revenge, but were looking to build long-lasting peace and relationships around the world," said Gary Foster, one of the film’s producers. "I hope Legionnaires who see this film use it as an example of how we really can make significant changes and long-standing peace if we take the petty, small, personal items out of it."

Legion Family members shared their thoughts about the film and asked questions during a panel discussion following the screening. The number one question asked was whether the decision to keep Hirohito as an emperor was the soundest choice.

"Without the emperor, Japan would have ventured into chaos," said Michael Green, a Georgetown University professor who served as a historical consultant for the film and panelist participant. "Without Japan beginning to rebuild, we would have had a heck of a time responding to Korea … we would not have been able to contain the Soviets in the Pacific and, today, it’s the U.S.-Japan alliance that gives us the best chance we have should China rise."

The opening of "Emperor" shows the U.S. dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Legionnaire, World War II veteran and panelist participant Bill Christoffersen was disappointed that the film didn’t show "what brought us to dropping that bomb. I was 18 years old, in the infantry, spent all my time in the Pacific seeing kamikaze attacks and other things. If it hadn’t been for that atomic bomb, I wouldn’t be sitting here. We were just over the horizon waiting to make sure that treaty was signed."

Past National Commander Jake Comer agreed with Christoffersen’s position on the film that it should have started with the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. "They started the war, not us," Comer said," but it looked like that we were starting something there with the bombing of two cities."

Green responded that showing the Pearl Harbor attack "would have shown how angry the American people were, and how extraordinary some of these (later) decisions were."

Producers of the film are encouraging Legionnaires to watch "Emperor" and host a panel discussion at their affiliated post afterward to address the historical, political, social and cultural issues it raises. Download a discussion guide: 

"What I’m proud about is that this film honors all the sacrifice that was made by those who survived after the war and those who gave their lives during the war," Foster said. "It wouldn’t have been possible without them.

"Our hope is that people will see this movie and delve further into reading and looking into the history of what happened in World War II in the Pacific.