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MacArthur

PBS' peerless "American Experience" series is generally so good, singling out individual efforts for special praise can prove difficult. Yet Austin Hoyt's ambitious four-hour "MacArthur" merits nothing less.

PBS’ peerless “American Experience” series is generally so good, singling out individual efforts for special praise can prove difficult. Yet Austin Hoyt’s ambitious four-hour “MacArthur” merits nothing less. A fascinating, authoritative, detailed, balanced documentary rivaling last season’s 4-1/2-hour program on Ronald Reagan in comprehensiveness, Hoyt’s latest achievement emerges as a model of its kind.

As with Reagan, the subject at the center of this program is a controversial American. But Douglas MacArthur may be less familiar to younger viewers than educators and others would hope. Hoyt’s excellent effort could go a long way toward raising MacArthur’s dimming profile, for this fast-paced show paints a gripping portrait of a thrilling, maddening figure.

One of this country’s most colorful military men, MacArthur was first in his class at West Point. A brilliant general, he was also a fervid self-promoter, unafraid to steal credit from others and spurn his superiors.

Yet he was a bona fide hero: the most decorated American officer of WWI, a soldier of uncommon honor in WWII and the architect of such brilliant maneuvers as the landing at Inchon during the Korean conflict.

The only long-lived child of a Civil War hero who eventually became the highest-ranking soldier in the U.S. Army, MacArthur was born in 1880 and spent his formative years in the deserts of New Mexico, where his father attempted to bring order to the frontier. He was enamored of the military life from the beginning, and his parents’ insistence that he was destined for greatness only furthered his commitment to take on a soldier’s life.

Over the course of its four hours, this docu not only details MacArthur’s military career, but also examines his thwarted political ambitions and his personal life (including his two marriages, the first of which he failed to mention in his memoirs, and his dalliance with a mixed-race actress named Dimples).

Talking heads add first-hand anecdotal detail, but the real reward is the period footage, which includes such unexpected gems as MacArthur’s 1930 swearing-in as Army chief-of-staff, complete with sound, and color home movies of the MacArthurs relaxing in the years before WWII. Hoyt also throws in bits and pieces from his speeches to Congress and West Point.

Especially powerful is the extended B&W excerpt of the famous ticker-tape parade that marked MacArthur’s homecoming from Korea in 1951. The most lavish display of its kind in American history — dwarfing even those afforded Lindbergh and Eisenhower — the Manhattan spectacle still dazzles.

Of course, any program hoping to shed light on MacArthur should dazzle. Though an American original, the general was part of a line that includes Caesar and Napoleon. Gracious in victory, rarely defeated, but ever enigmatic, MacArthur remains one of America’s most fascinating sons. This documentary helps explain why.

MacArthur

PBS; Mon. May. 17 and Tues. May 18, 9 p.m.

  • Production: Filmed in the U.S. and Asia by WGBH Boston for PBS. Executive producer, Margaret Drain; senior producer, Mark Samels; associate producer, David Condon; producer, director, writer, Austin Hoyt; co-director, co-producer, Sarah Holt. 4 HOURS.
  • Crew:
  • Cast: Narrated by David Ogden Stiers. Camera, Terry Hopkins; editors, Bernice Schneider and Sarah Holt; music, Michael Bacon.
  • Music By: