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Laramie Movie Scope:
American Pastime

Japanese-Americans in an internment camp during WWII
play a baseball game to win a haircut

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by Patrick Ivers, Film Critic
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(2007) This film, as much as Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line and Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers and Iwo Jima, complements The War by Ken Burns, especially episode V. The discriminatory treatment of 120,000 Japanese-American citizens being sent to ten internment camps was one of the most shameful acts, along with the segregation of black Americans, of the United States government during the first half of 20th century.

In East Los Angeles in 1941 the Nomura family - Kazuo (Masatoshi Nakamura) and his wife and their two sons, Lane (Leonardo Nam) and Lyle (Aaron Yoo) - were enjoying the fruits of the good life of Americans. Their friends and neighbors included blacks and whites. Lyle, a talented musician on a jazz saxophone, had been offered a baseball scholarship to San Francisco State College. But their world was disrupted following the attack on Pearl Harbor with President Roosevelt's executive order to expel every Japanese-American from the West Coast to internment camps.

Given only ten days notice, the Nomuras had to abandon their home and business, taking only what they could carry with them. After a temporary stay in a horse stall at the Santa Anita Racetrack, they were transported with 8,000 other Japanese-Americas to the Topaz Relocation Center, with its barbed-wire fence and watchtowers, near Abraham, Utah. They tried to make the best of a lousy situation, using their own funds for improving the condition of their barracks.

While the camp's director was a well-meaning Quaker, many of the guards and townspeople treated them with disrespect, referring to them as "Japs" and "little slants," as if they were the enemy. A group of disgruntled prisoners attempted to foment rebellion, questioning the legitimacy of their internment, asking why only Japanese-Americans but not German- or Italian-Americans were receiving such discriminatory treatment: "What happened to the Constitution? Demand answers!" The military guards rounded up the malcontents and shipped them off to a special camp.

Lyle rebelled by getting involved with an old man who made hooch and ran games of chance. By 1943 the camp had settled into daily routines (though I doubt life there was as easy as the impression given in the film) with social groups, including a singing class led by Katie Burrell with young girls in the camp. Surreptitiously Lyle (on his sax) and Katie (on piano) begin practicing playing jazz together.

Katie's father, Sgt Billy Burrell (Gary Cole), is among the hard-hearted guards. He also plays catcher for the Abraham Bees and once had been considered a prospect by the New York Yankees. An incident leads to a challenge between Billy and Lyle: a five-dollar bet that escalates to ten bucks that Lyle can strike out Billy. Billy swings and misses on the first two pitches, but he and his buddy unfairly call Lyle's next four throws balls.

A telegram arrives informing Billy that his son Billy Jr, a Navy seaman, has been killed in the war against the Japanese in the Pacific. The following year the Quakers offer a music scholarship to Delaware State University to one worthy individual in the camp; Lyle expects he can earn it and helps Katie apply for admission so that they can be together. One of Billy's friends, Ed Tully, the town barber and first-baseman on the baseball team, tells Billy that Katie has been seeing a Jap boy. Billy tells Katie in no uncertain terms that she is not to see Lyle and forbids her returning to the camp: "Not to the memory of your brother."

On a trip to pick up supplies in town, Lyle gets roughed up by Ed and another man, injuring his arm; the injury prevents Lyle from winning the scholarship. The old man says: "Tough luck, kid. Deal with it."When President Roosevelt allows Japanese-Americans to enlist in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team - their slogan becomes "Go for broke" - to fight against the Nazis, along with thousands of others from the internment camps, Lane signs on to prove he's a loyal American. His mother gives him a senninbari, a white cloth contain 1000 red stitches from women in the camp for good luck.

News of the battles in the Vosges Mountains where members of the 442nd saved 211 survivors of the "Lost Battalion" of Texans while suffering 800 casualties, reaches the camp and the town. Lane, returning to Abraham as a lieutenant with a prosthetic right foot and a Silver Star, stops at the barbershop for a haircut before continuing on to see his family. Ed Tully tells him: "I don't cut Jap hair."

Kaz Nomura, who had once been a standout baseball player himself, barnstorming with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, talks Billy into playing an exhibition game between Billy's Bees and the Topaz team with Lyle pitching for the Japanese-Americans. The old man in the camp collects a quarter from everyone to bet on the winner, putting up $2500 against a haircut.

The game itself comes down to the longest 90 feet (similar to Burt Reynolds and the prisoners playing football against the prison guards in The Longest Yard) with Lane leading the cheers of "Go for broke!"

On 20 March 1946 the last of the internment camps closed. During those four years of confinement to camps, no Japanese-American committed an act of sabotage or espionage.

P.S. In an article by Howard Pankratz of The Denver Post: "In December, Congress established a $38 million program of National Park Service grants to restore the 10 camps across the United States that housed Japanese-Americans forced from the West Coast in the early 1940s." The Heart Mountain internment camp near Cody, Wyoming, had a population of nearly 11,000 from August 1942 until November 1945. "In 1988, the government agreed to pay $1.65 billion in reparations to 81,000 surviving camp inmates [of the original 120,000 or about $20,000 each nearly 40 years after they had been released from the camps]."

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2007 Patrick Ivers. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Patrick Ivers can be reached via e-mail at nora's email address at juno. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

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