Archive for February 26, 2021

SHAKO: Black History Month – African Americans in War Movies Part I

Eight War Movies Worth Seeing

As Black History month draws to a close, here at 4GWAR we thought we’d leave you with some films to help explore how Hollywood treated black actors and black history in films about war and life in the military during wartime.

This is a far from an all encompassing list of films made during — and right after — World War II and the Korean War, when the Jim Crow era (at least in Hollywood) began to give way to the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, desegregation of the military and (slowly) growing media coverage of racial issues from the non-white point of view.

Black U.S. Army Force pilots of the 15th Air Force confer by one of their P-51 Mustangs in Italy. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

Because the military was segregated until 1948, and little attention was paid to the contributions of all-black units, even less attention was paid to people of color in the movies — except as servants, savages, token players in crowd scenes or comic relief.

There were few or no black actors in “The Longest Day,” “Sands of Iwo Jima,” or “Twelve O’Clock High,” because there were few or no black Sailors, Solders, Airmen and Marines in World War II — or so we were told.

The movies on this list started to change that, not always sensitively, but changes were beginning.


With a timeworn plot — a small, rag-tag band of soldiers thrown together against overwhelming odds — (at least two other films on this list have similar story lines),  “Bataan” might seem like nothing special. However, Bataan was one of the first war movies to cast an African-American actor, Kenneth Spencer (bare-chested in the photo above), as “a soldier of equal standing with the rest of his multi-cultural unit,” according Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz.

The Story: During the retreat to the Bataan peninsula during the Japanese invasion of the Philippines in early 1942, 12 soldiers from different units and one sailor are tasked with destroying a key bridge to slow the invading Japanese. They’re also told to stay at their posts as long as possible to keep the enemy from rebuilding the bridge.

Spencer, a trained opera singer as well as actor, portrayed Private Wesley Epps, 3rd Engineer Battalion, who was studying for the ministry before the Army and sings or hums hymns in a rich voice while he works. Except for some surprised or skeptical looks at the first roll call,  the men generally accept Epps as a soldier and demolition expert.  Producer Dore Schary deliberately did not tell his writers he was planning to cast an African-American as one of the soldiers, in order to avoid any racial equality speeches in the script. The NAACP gave MGM two awards for presenting an African-American in an intelligent and sympathetic manner, according to Internet Movie Data base (IMDb). However, some theater organizations in the Jim Crow South refused to show it.

By the way, it’s Spencer’s voice singing the title ballad of “A Walk in the Sun,” (1945) another acclaimed war movie, in which there are no actors of color.

CRASH DIVE (20th Century Fox, 1944)

While most World War II movies, particularly those made during the war, feature few, if any, African-American characters,  “Crash Dive” is another notable exception. It’s primarily a combination war and romance film with submarine commander Dana Andrews and his brash Exec, Tyrone Power, vying for the same girl when they’re not battling Nazi  U-boats and anti-submarine decoy ships  in the North Atlantic.

One significant role is played by veteran African-American actor Ben Carter (in photo above), as Oliver Cromwell Jones, a messman (kitchen steward) the only job open to blacks on U.S. Navy ships, While it’s a stereotypical role, Carter’s character is more developed than most available to black character actors in the 1940s. “Crash Dive” doesn’t forget about Jones for long periods of the story as so many other war movies did with their black characters. A subplot is the camaraderie he develops with a crusty senior chief when Jones discovers the chief’s heart medicine, noting “A man don’t take nitroglycerine for dandruff.” Jones agrees not to tell anyone so the chief can go on one last mission. When the ship’s crew launches a commando raid late in the film, nobody stops Jones from gearing up and joining the raid. But remember, this film was made in a less racially sensitive time. As the white sailors blacken their faces in preparation for the nighttime raid, Jones bursts out laughing: “I’m the only born commando here!”

HOME OF THE BRAVE (United Artists, 1949)

Because all of the U.S. armed services were segregated in World War II and little was known about the heroics of black units like the Tuskegee airmen until years later, the previous two films were remarkable for simply including any black characters in the story. In “Home of the Brave,” the black soldier and his treatment by others is the story.

Stage and film actor James Edwards plays the only black soldier, Private Moss, among a five-man reconnaissance team sent to map out a Japanese-held island before an amphibious landing. Racial tensions between Moss and the others, builds along with the overarching terror of stealthily gathering topographic data in the steaming jungles of an island occupied by 15,000 Japanese troops.

The story unfolds largely in flashbacks as an Army psychiatrist tries to determine why a bedridden Moss can’t walk, even though he was not wounded when Japanese gunfire forced the team to run for their lives.

It’s a low budget film with a small cast, based on a stage play about racism — although in the play the outsider is Jewish, not black. The film’s producer and screenwriter decided to change the central character’s race because they believed antisemitism “had been done” already with 1947’s Oscar winning “Gentlemen’s Agreement.”

The film was well received by many black newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier, where columnist Billy Rowe called it “without a doubt one of the most important milestones of the generation. One that no good American , and surely no Negro, can afford to miss.”  Bill Chase, writing in New York Age, said the film “reveals intimately the reactions of one who feels himself universally defamed and unwanted.”  Al Andersen of the Baltimore Afro-American, while praising the film said it was “not without shortcomings, however. The most glaring fault was the fact that It shoved some of the blame for our country’s diseased race relations on colored people themselves.”

THE STEEL HELMET (Lippert Pictures, 1951)

Even if you’ve never heard of it, “The Steel Helmet” is famous for a lot of reasons. It was the first Korean War movie made during the Korean War.

It was a small, low budget film by iconic and iconoclastic director and screenwriter Samuel Fuller, who went on to make films like “Shock Corridor,” “Fixed Bayonets,”  “House of Bamboo,” “Hell and High Water,” “Underworld U.S.A” and “The Big Red One.”

Fuller, a World War II infantry combat veteran, shot the film in 10 days, and released it just six months after the war began, according to TCM host Dave Karger.

James Edwards is in the cast (as a medic) and like “Bataan,” the plot follows another thrown-together team of survivors with an impossible mission to carry out.  It’s also famous for tackling issues like the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II and the mistreatment of blacks in and out of the Army, when a captured North Korean major tries to radicalize the black medic and a Japanese-American sergeant guarding him.

Four More Films tomorrow in PART II.

*** *** ***

SHAKOSHAKO is an occasional 4GWAR posting on military history, traditions and culture. For the uninitiated, a shako is the tall, billed headgear worn by many armies from the Napoleonic era to about the time of the American Civil War. It remains a part of the dress or parade uniform of several military organizations like the corps of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York.

February 26, 2021 at 11:57 pm 1 comment


February 2021


%d bloggers like this: