The reason this unremarkable drama exists couldn’t be more obvious: MacArthur was envisioned as a successor to the Oscar-winning military biography Patton (1970), since MacArthur presents another comprehensive survey of a World War II-era general’s career. Alas, all the genius and inspiration that touched the makers of Patton eluded the folks behind MacArthur, which ends up being the equivalent of a pleasant TV movie, notwithstanding the presence of expensive production values and a top-shelf leading man. Yet MacArthur finds itself wanting even in the person of its star, for Gregory Peck simply can’t muster anything resembling the complexity that George C. Scott brought to Patton. Peck doesn’t give a bad performance, but he doesn’t give a great one, either.
The basic outline of MacArthur’s career as a commanding officer should be familiar to most viewers. While overseeing America’s forces in the Pacific during World War II, MacArthur was recalled to Washington, D.C., against his wishes. On his way out of the embattled Philippines, the corncob-pipe-smoking general boldly announced, “I shall return.” True to his word, MacArthur subsequently oversaw the liberation of the Philippines and seemed poised for even greater victories until President Truman ended World War II by dropping the world’s first two atomic bombs on Japan.
When a fresh war in the Pacific broke out less than a decade later, MacArthur resumed his individualistic command style by leading troops in Korea, but he angered the powers-that-be so deeply with his insubordination that he was stripped of his command. Then, in 1951, he ended his military career with a famous address including the lines, “Old soldiers never die—they just fade away.”
All of these high points are present in MacArthur, which aspires to provide a fully shaped narrative but falls into the trap of simply presenting exciting episodes. Nonetheless, the movie is quite watchable, thanks to Peck’s charisma, director Joseph Sargent’s unobtrusive storytelling, and the sweep of the film’s many battle scenes. The movie also boasts a secret weapon in world-class character actor Ed Flanders, who gives a memorably cantankerous performance as Truman. (Workaday actors rounding out the cast include Russell Johnson, Dan O’Herlihy, Dick O’Neill, and G.D. Spradlin.)
As for Peck, he commits to the role with a plucked hairline and a somber demeanor, but he seems trapped between emulating the decency of his signature roles (notably To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch) and mimicking the hard edges of Scott’s unforgettable turn as Patton. To his credit, Peck has some fine moments, and he sticks the landing by delivering the “old soldiers” speech beautifully. One wishes, however, that the movie and its leading performance were as dynamic as the historical figure being examined.