Movie Review: Devotion

Jesse Brown, a black man, became a US Navy pilot in 1946.  As one might expect at that time, he faced plenty of race-based obstacles in addition to the inherent difficulties involved in becoming a Naval Aviator. Nevertheless, he prevailed, and flew a Corsair piston-engined fighter from the carrier Leyte, in missions to support US ground troops in the Korean War.  On one mission, supporting Marines at the battle of Chosin Reservoir as a member of  the VF-32 squadron, he was shot down in rugged terrain.  His (white) wingman, Thomas Hudner,  observed that Brown had not exited the airplane–which was starting to burn–and landed his Corsair near Brown’s wrecked one with the intent of getting Brown out of the plane and waiting with him until a rescue helicopter could (hopefully) be dispatched before Chinese or North Korean troops showed up.

Oh, and by the way, while Leyte was in the Mediterranean, prior to being dispatched to Korea, several of the aviators met actress Elizabeth Taylor while on shore leave.

Definitely sounds like fiction, doesn’t it?  But it really happened.  While the film indeed took some liberties with the historical truth, the events cited in the above summary are in accord with the factual history.

Race does play a significant role in this movie, of course…since his childhood, Brown had maintained a notebook in which he recorded the various race-based insults he had received over time, especially those telling him all the things he would never have the ability to do.  Sometimes he would recite these as a way of giving himself extra inspiration for high performance.  But I don’t think the racial angle was overemphasized, given the era and Brown’s apparent actual experiences.

The flying scenes were well-done…real airplanes, not CGI…an actual MiG-15 even made an appearance.  (The scene in which a MiG is shot down by a Corsair did not actually happen on this mission, but there was historically an engagement in which a Corsair did manage to shoot down a MiG.)  The movie also includes scenes of the ground combat at Chosin Reservoir.

Despite Hudner’s effort, Brown could not be pulled from the wrecked airplane, and died there.  He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Purple Heart medal, and the Air Medal.  Tom Hudner received the Medal of Honor from President Truman.  The frigate Jesse L Brown, FF-1089, was named after Brown in 1973, and an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer was named after Hudner in 2012.

The movie draws on the book Devotion by Adam Makos,  which I haven’t read but apparently goes into considerable detail on the Chosin Revenue ground battle as well as the stories of Brown and Hudner and the experiences of other VF-32 members.

Recommended.  I thought it was better than  Top Gun:  Maverick.  A little slower, but more sense of realism and character development.

23 thoughts on “Movie Review: <em>Devotion</em>”

  1. I’ve seen the commercials and it looks interesting. I can’t stand Cruise or his movies, so am unlikely to see “Son of Top Gun.”

    Any opinions here on Hampton Sides’ book about Chosin, “On Desperate Ground”? I worked with him on his Ray/MLK book and have read several of the others, but not this one.

  2. The F4U was the first mode! airplane I had as a kid and I think I.watched every episode of Baa Baa Black Sheep…well we.all did in my school. I’m not much on going to theaters these days but for a movie where the Corsair meets the Chosin I made an exception

  3. “Race does play a significant [part in the] movie, of course …”

    Frankly, I am tired of all the race-baiting from the media/political industry. For uncounted tens of thousands of years, human beings have abused each other over trivial distinctions. Finally, over two centuries ago, the ruling European-stock people recognized the inhumanity of this, and did their best to put an end to it. But those who want to divide us so they can rule us will not let it go.

    Yes, racial discrimination (around the world) was a Bad Thing, and fortunately most of us outgrew it long ago. Not to mention all the other kinds of discrimination human beings have struggled against and overcome. Even an intellectual giant like James Clerk Maxwell was mocked behind his back all his life by upper class Englishmen because of his quaint rural Scottish accent — but it did not hold him back.

    Look at the evidence of our own experiences. I have known people of African heritage who were wonderful people — and others who were total shits. I can make exactly the same observation about people of European heritage, and Indian heritage, and Chinese heritage. It is long past time for us to follow Martin Luther King’s guidance and focus on the content of an individual’s character and not the color of his skin.

    What is particularly galling is that well-intended Affirmative Action transmogrified into reverse discrimination, and now has become principally a way of advancing the “Daughters of Privilege” far above their level of competence. “Daughters of Privilege” are the upper middle class white females who get catapulted into senior positions in academia, government, media, and business — simply because of their gender. And yes, of course there are excellent women who have earned those high positions; but there are also others.

    Despite my interest in the Korean War, I will be skipping this movie.

  4. Cousin Eddie,

    It has been a few years since I read Sides’ book, it was the perfect read for a long airplane flight, but I had to go back to my notes to remind me of some key points

    First impression? Like I said a great read, the man can tell a story and does a great job from a literary standpoint of setting the stage; to paraphrase Chekhov regarding guns over fireplaces, when he mentions in passing someone’s character flaw early in the book you know it’s going to play a big part later on. He’s great at pulling information from not only secondary works but also directly from military archives to provide his great story-telling with a firm foundation in historical fact.

    Problems (keeping in mind I like the book)?

    I feel as an example of narrative military history Sides to be dated. There has been a movement over the past 15 years when writing popular military history to not only to write it in a narrative format but to interweave the more traditional themes of military history so that work is really an exposition of larger military and historical insights. James Hornsfischer and Ian Toll’s recent histories regarding the Pacific War are very good examples of that as they are both able to bring forth larger historical movements and military themes n a relatable format.

    How do I wish Sides added to it?

    He falls into the story-telling trap of personalizing heroes and villains, and then using those figures as an explanatory device for the arc of his book. Don’t get me wrong, I generally don’t like MacArthur and have always hated Almond blaming both of them for what happened in December 1950 and I feel going back to his 2nd Division days that Oliver Smith was a master innovator and leader of men. However I feel more than just being facile, depicting them as merely foils for one another misses an opportunity to provide a greater explanatory power. Whatever their faults and virtues, Almond and Smith are in terms of the general populace very capable men and so both their place in Korea and in command of their respective units tells a larger story of not only them place within their respective service branches but of Amy-Marine relations in WW II and of the post-WW II military in general. There is a whiff of Greek tragedy in all of this because if MacArthur did not proceed to the Yalu we would remember both him and Almond quite differently but in a certain sense it was almost preordained that he would right?

    One of other criticism is that while he quotes a lot from the writings of 1st Division veterans he really doesn’t conduct any interviews of them. That doesn’t distract from the story, but represents a missed opportunity as while their writings will endure, the veterans themselves are dying off as is the chance for them to give their oral history.

  5. Mike, thanks for that detailed and thoughtful critique.

    I haven’t read Toll or Hornfischer, though I’ve seen them on CSPAN and liked what I saw, and browse them at the bookstore. I’m much more a student of the European Wars.

    Sides is a professional journalist who has written well on many different subjects; the other two I think much more specialized(?). Might account for the emphasis on characters and story over broader historical themes.

    Others I have asked are pretty positive also.

    I should mention that finally “Stalin’s War” by McMeekin (hey Gavin!) has made it’s way to the top of my reading pile, and it’s very good. Revisionist in the best sense, and pulls together a lot of strands that specialists have been spinning out since the end of CWI.

    Very solid, and sure to set the right teeth on edge.

  6. I saw it on the big screen, and now it is on Paramount + for those who stream. Concur with your assessment, and might add Adam Makos also wrote another wonderful book on the reunion, after 50 years, of a Luftwaffe pilot who spared shooting down a B-17 that was all shot up and trying to return to base. A Higher Call.

    At first I thought it was all CGI but yes, that was a real MiG 15, 2 Bearcats, and 2 Corsairs.

    They really did a lot of research on the Corsair – it was a handful to fly and would kill you for the slightest mistake.

    I thought it was a wonderful glimpse into the postwar Navy.

    “Did you fly in the war?”

    “No”

    “Well then, you’ll fit right in”.

  7. I have read Hornfischer’s books on the Pacific and liked them a lot. I have “Stalin’s War” on my kindle, ready to go. I saw ads for the movie and have been reluctant to see a movie with such a racial undertone. I thought the first “Top Gun” movie was better. I knew a couple of the guys who did the flying.

    They are novels but I have read all of PT Duetermann’s books on WWII and his books since then. In the afterword of his novel on the Okinawa destroyer screen, which his father commanded, he comments that his father would never speak of that experience. Duetermann spent 26 years in the Navy and his later books are about Washington and the Pentagon. His attitude toward that time can be judged by his term “Civil Serpents.”

  8. Jeff Carter…great that you got to meet Hudner!…it’s really as much his story as it is Brown’s.

    Interesting that when he entered the Academy in 1943, he was focused on the surface navy…it was only in 1948 that he applied to flight school.

  9. Mike K:
    So glad to see another Deutermann fan! I’ve read every one of Deutermann’s books since his first, “Scorpion in the Sea.” His latest is great. He is one of my favorite novelists….

    I’ve not seen the movie “Devotion,” but have read the book. I think you’d find it [the book] an even-handed treatment of the racial world of the 1950s. It neither emphasizes nor minimizes the white / black experience of that time. It does clearly reveal the respect that Brown justifiably earned and enjoyed from his fellow aviators (who judged his character, not his skin color….)

    I found Hornfischer’s “Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors” such gripping WW II naval history that it led me to read all of his works, including his last, published posthumously.

    Evan Thomas’s “Sea of Thunder” is another Pacific naval war history that you might like, inasmuch as he follows four military principals, two American, two Japanese, in the lead-up to the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
    https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/37623.Sea_of_Thunder

    Happy reading!

  10. I would point out that in addition to his Stalin’s War that McKeeson has a number of other excellent books dealing with modern European history. He is an academic historian and there was a lot of discussion last week with the death of Paul Johnson on how emaciated that field has become, glad to see someone row against the current

    ColoComment, excellent suggestion on Sea of Thunder as there are several dimensions to that work. The first, in line with your mention “Last Stand of the Tim Can Sailors”, was his lengthy discussion of Ernest Evans who led what can only be described as the charge of his Fletcher-class destroyer against the Japanese battlefleet. I call him a man of legend though if I remember correctly one of his men wished that Evans would have turned around after firing his torpedoes.

    When I described MacArthur and Almond as “tragic” figures I was thinking of Thomas’ work in Sea of Thunder in how he described Halsey and the Japanese admirals Kurita and Ugaki. The two Japanese officers were professionally raised in the shadow of Tsaushima and had spent their entire professional lives preparing for an re-enactment of that battle with the Americans. Yet, when the time came for that actual battle, it no longer mattered as the world and the war had passed them by; the Japanese lost so many ships in order to bring the Americans under its guns and then when it came time to blow Taffy 3 out of the water, the Japanese seemed to realize that it didn’t matter and went home.

    Thomas also illustrated the tragedy of Halsey. He was a man of legend that had outlived if not his usefulness, then outlived his war. The blunt-talking, aggressive Halsey was the perfect admiral for the dark days of 1942 and the intermediate period of 1943, but by the time the US achieved dominance what was once seen as necessary aggressiveness deteriorated into inexcusable recklessness of the type that leads you into chasing neutered Japanese carriers and driving your ships into typhoons. Some great men are tragic because they outlive their money, others are tragic because they become irrelevant in their professional lifetimes. It was also Halsey’s curse to be matched up in the 3rd/5th Fleet rotation with Sprunace whose time had come in 1944 because he demonstrated in the Marianas that a carrier task force no longer had to maneuver almost recklessly for first-mover advantage but instead could maintain its primary mission of covering the invasion force while protecting itself against a Japanese strike, The concept of being to operate with impunity within range of Japanese aircraft was proven during Operation Hailstone off of Truk and just before Leyte when U.S. Carriers attacked Formosa. Halsey didn’t do what Sprunace would have done, he had to chase those Japanese carriers. His war had passed him by.

    That’s why I call MacArthur a tragic figure. Had he stopped at the 38th or even in Pyongyang he would have been in known in history for Inchon, liberating the Philippines, and his administration of Japan, Instead we know him for being the 5-star general who got bushwhacked by the Chinese and fired by Truman. The world and 20th Century war passed MacArthur by; his apex came after he executed what was the ultimate WW II amphibious operation (Inchon) and his fall came a few months later when he failed to understand that the total victory that was realized just a few years before, was now impossible in the nuclear age.

  11. yes I second the recommendation about hornfischer, shame he passed on so soon, you all most of you had read morison’s account, but I had not, I’ve made comparisons to the preminger adaptation of james bassetts in harms way

    McArthur was old way of war, for all his faults, his over confidence was seen in the overwhelming of phillipines defenses, and then the PLA almost a decade later past the 38th parallel,

    ,

  12. It must have been kind of vexing to go from F8Fs to F4Us. Kind of like going from a Corvette to a Dump Truck.

  13. It’s a good movie and good story. The flying scenes are very good. Whatever they did with CGI to create entire squadrons of ancient planes is believable. The plot is straightforward and compelling. The racial part of the story is integral; Brown would have had to have been an exceptional individual to make it as a Navy pilot in those days. Worth seeing.

  14. Halsey didn’t do what Sprunace would have done, he had to chase those Japanese carriers. His war had passed him by.

    But not his fans in the media and politics. Spruance never got the 5th star. Criticism of his decision to stay close to Saipan and not chase the Japanese fleet is still heard. Halsey was saved by Evans and his fellow sacrificed destroyers. The Japanese admiral could not believe that Halsey had been so reckless and feared Taffy 3 was the fleet. He turned away and Halsey’s reputation survived.

  15. Some years ago Richard Fernandez wrote a post titled “Ten Ships” which posited that the center of gravity for Japan was the Kido Butai of its fast carrier fleet. I think he is partly right but the real center was its naval.air.arm because by Letter they had the carriers but no planes

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