The American Experience: MacArthur (1999)

The United States' 20th-century involvement in Asia can't be fully understood without coming to terms with Douglas MacArthur.

This four-hour PBS documentary, narrated by prize-winning historian David McCullough, captures both the personality and the historical significance of this controversial, larger-than-life military genius. Beginning with a quick character sketch of the general's war-hero father, the movie presents his privileged childhood, success as a West Point cadet and World War I combat valor as a prelude to his emergence an important public figure.

Believing that politics had unjustly destroyed his father's career, “Dugout Doug” used his connections with the conservative wing of the Republican party to defeat his enemies at home.

He also cultivated the press with the skill of a seasoned election campaigner. The American Experience: MacArthur chronicles his brilliant World War II and Korean War victories as well as his far-sighted reconstruction of Japan.

The complexities of the political and military events leading to his firing by President Harry Truman during the Korea conflict are deftly handled.

Harbor several times before. Tora! Tora! Tora! was the code used by the Japanese bomber pilots to signal their mission's success after they destroyed the U.S. Navy's Pacific headquarters on Dec. 7, 1941. Unlike the recently released blockbuster about the same incident, this movie focuses on a detailed, accurate re-creation of the two sides' war strategies instead of a schmaltzy romantic triangle.

The Japanese commanders, led by Admiral Yamamoto (Soh Yamura), are depicted as highly motivated, innovative warriors.

In contrast, the Americans, represented by Admiral Kimmel (Martin Balsam) and General Short (Jason Robards, Jr.) appear unimaginative and complacent.

The action sequences are impressive if not quite as spectacular as those in the current Pearl Harbor. To create a proper balance, the studio hired both Japanese (Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda) and American (Richard Fleischer) directors.

However, some may argue that this version, like the current release, downplays the savagery of the Japanese aggression elsewhere during World War II to avoid offending Japanese audiences, a potentially lucrative market.

Intolerance (1916)

Writer-director D.W. Griffith (The Birth of A Nation) invented the cinematic storytelling techniques that made Hollywood possible. At the height of his career he had more clout than Steven Spielberg and George Lucas put together.

Intolerance, a silent classic that's one of the Vatican's top 45 films, was originally a financial flop. Its innovative crosscutting between four different stories confused the audiences of its time. But its techniques seem perfectly intelligible today.

The movie's religious-themed message is to “show how hatred and intolerance, through all the ages, have battled against love and charity.”

Its modern story focuses on the efforts of a devout Irish-Catholic wife (Mae Marsh) to keep her blue-collar husband (Donald Harron) from being executed for a crime he didn't commit.

The other segments dramatize: Jesus' persecution by the Pharisees; the conflict between Catholics and Protestants in 16th-century France; and the betrayal of a tolerant 6th-century BC Babylonian prince by a Baal-worshipping priest.

The crowd scenes and epic battles are all spectacular, and the personal moments intimate and subtle.