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Portrayals of Asians in Film and Television

From World War II through the 50s

Air Force
Released in 1943 at the height of the war. Japanese are mostly anonymous targets of bombing runs. However, there is a depiction of sabotage by Japanese-Americans in Hawaii before the attack on Pearl Harbor that absolutely never actually happened.

The Bridge on the River Kwai
The 1957 prisoner-of-war story contrasts western culture with that of the Japanese. One is civilized; the other barbarian. Also explores weakness and bravery.

Bridges at Toko-Ri
A 1955 film in which with the advent of a new war, the sinister images of Asians have moved from Japanese to Koreans.

The Charlie Chan Chanthology
Six films made from 1944 to 1946 all star a Scandinavian actor as the Chinese detective, but employ Asian-American actors as his sons. Charlie is wise, inscrutable, and foreign. His Number One and other sons, who wish to assimilate into American culture, are their father's foils.

Dragon Seed
Katharine Hepburn plays a very mannered Chinese woman, and she's not the only yellow faced actor. The war-themed message was that Chinese peasants are noble and the Japanese are evil villains. (In the Katharine Hepburn 100th Anniversary Collection.) 1944

Go for Broke
A 1951 film about the Japanese-American 442nd regiment of World War II examines the prejudice they experienced and presents them as heroes. Its white commander, however, is the main protagonist.

The King and I
Yul Brynner stars as King Mongkut of Siam and Rita Moreno as Tuptim in this 1956 musical. This film was banned in Thailand as disrespectful in its portrayal of the royal family.

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing
The character Jennifer Jones plays is Eurasian, which still meant she played in yellow face, but by 1955, in Hollywood, she was allowed to have a love affair with a white man.

Why We Fight
A series of six propaganda films made for the US Army by director Frank Capra. The first, in part, and fifth, fully, focus on the war against Japan. A product of its time, it includes misinformation and racist portrayals of heroic Chinese and the Japanese enemies.

World War II Films: Volume 2
Includes examples of WWII cartoon propaganda and racial caricatures. The table of contents can give you an idea: Challenge to Democracy; Japanese Relocation; Our Enemy: the Japanese; Negro Soldier; Tokio Jokio; Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs; Bugs Bunny Nips The Nips; You're A Sap, Mr. Jap.

Ziegfield Follies
In the musical number "Limestone Blues," Fred Astaire & Lucille Bremer perform in pantomime made up to look characteristically Chinese. 1946

Jennifer Richards

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Jenny Richards