In the 1950s, Hollywood sought to repent for its treatment of the Japanese during the preceding decade. Usually, this came in the form of narratives about American soldiers falling in love with Japanese war widows, most famously in Sayonara (1957). Produced by Dore Schary, Go for Broke! (1951) stands out from its contemporaries and successors. First, it explicitly features Japanese Americans, with the emphasis squarely placed on the American part. Second, the film is about Japanese American soldiers during WWII, specifically “the heroes of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.” Through their exemplary heroism and sacrifice, the audience is supposed to learn that these Japanese Americans are truly American first.
The film follows Lt. Michael Grayson (Van Johnson), a new platoon leader in the 442nd. He acts as the audience surrogate, with the assumption that the typical audience member was also white and holding onto racial resentment against Japanese Americans. Both this character and the viewers are told in no uncertain terms that these solider are loyal Americans and that their bigotry is unfounded. They are also both taught specific terms to use in place of slurs and generalisations.
For this role, Johnson employs a hammy and overly cinematic acting style typical of the time. In doing so, his racism is presented more as an awkward uncertainty rather than outright hatred. It’s supposed to be funny when he struggles to pronounce his men’s names or when he is uncertain about how to interact with them. This performance stands in stark contrast with those playing the soldiers.
As the opening titles boast, the majority of the soldiers were played by actual veterans of the 442nd rather than professional actors. This film was their first time acting in front of a camera, and they perform accordingly. There is a lot of flat mumbling. Yet – especially when compared to Johnson – their acting styles start to broach on the sort of naturalism that would dominate the industry two decades later. The scenes featuring just these soldiers casually interacting with each other are when the film is its most successful.
They fall into the standard archetypes found in war films. The audience is supposed to recognise these troupes and therefore recognise that these Japanese American soldiers are not so different from white ones. An opening quote from President Franklin D. confirms this messaging:
The Proposal of the War Department to organize a combat team consisting of loyal American citizens of Japanese descent has my full approval. The principle on which this country was founded and by which it has always been governed is that Americanism is a matter of mind and heart; Americanism is not, and never was, a matter of race or ancestry.
Yet, because Grayson is the point-of-view character, the soldiers of the 442nd are positioned as having to win his – and therefore the audience’s – respect. It is not enough to be like the characters in other war movies, these soldiers need to be exemplary. For the film and the assumed viewer, their American-ness needs to be earned.
If you want to learn more about Japanese American soldiers during WWII, be sure to check out Just Americans – How Japanese Americans Won a War at Home and Abroad (Robert Asahina, 2006) from the 2AD Memorial Library. The film Go for Broke! is in the public domain and can be watched for free on the Internet Archive: