General Bonner Fellers, the “hero” of the WWII drama “Emperor”?

In “Emperor,” the post-World War II occupation of Japan drama, Matthew Fox plays the brigadier general given the responsibility of investigating Emperor Hirohito’s involvement in the war, his knowledge of war crimes, and as the divine head of state, his ability to prevent any of that.


General MacArthur, military ruler of occupied Japan and played by Tommy Lee Jones, tasks Fellers with this, all the while letting him know that he thinks he “needs” the emperor to carry out an aggressive makeover of Japan and get it on its feet quickly. Thus, he ties Fellers’ hands.  But Washington, MacArthur huffs, wants to the emperor to hang. So Fellers is on the horns of a dilemma, or would be, if the film had played that up.

This being a movie, they compress the time for the actual investigation to just a few days. In fact, the time period for the investigation was considerably more than 10 days.

Complicating matters for Fellers is his long-lost college love, a Japanese woman whom he is obsessed with tracking down even as he’s up against a 10 day deadline for coming to a decision on Hirohito.

Did Fellers, a real person just like MacArthur, have a Japanese girlfriend? The film says they met at “Douglaston College,” which does not appear to have ever existed.  So apparently not. A Hollywood invention, like the “ten day deadline.” But he did go to Japan, more than once, before the war. He wrote about the Japanese military, as the movie says. And he met an exchange student in college, according to his family.

Since the script is based on a Shiro Okamoto book that doesn’t appear to have been translated into English,  I ran into a blind alley in trying to figure this out for my review of “Emperor.” I have seen the film twice, and had to murky up the way I talked about the “love story” because, well, I don’t know definitively how much of it is made up.

But the real Fellers was complicated in ways significantly different from those depicted in the film or on his family-maintained website (serious omissions/whitewashing there).

He was in military intelligence, and just as America entered the war, he made a few fairly large boo-boos in the Middle East. He got labeled “Anglophobe,” and his blundering was costly to the British, fighting the Germans and Italians on their own in the Med and North Africa at the time.

Read any thorough book on espionage and code-breaking and WWII and Fellers’ name crops up. In the years since first posting this, I have stumbled across him repeatedly. In Max Hastings’ “The Secret War,” he steps off the pages as a lethally incompetent handler of intelligence. The leaks coming out of Fellers’ sloppily encrypted “briefings” and situation reports for HQ earned a nickname. Gen. Erwin Rommel called them “little Fellers.” Frequent, reliable intel for the Afrika Corps, composed by an American Army officer. He was like Baron Oshima, the stupidly chatty Allied “source” inside Berlin whose reports back to Tokyo caused Allied cryptanalysts to regard him as their very own, and not the Japanese ambassador to Nazi Germany.

Eisenhower reportedly mistrusted and hated the guy, even before his connection to the preening, imperious MacArthur. Fellers was in OSS, the precursor to the CIA, for a period. His incompetence should have gotten him court martialed. Instead, he was transferred to the Pacific and became MacArthur’s right hand man.

Did his mission to “save” the Emperor pay off? Yes and no.  Hirohito and his family were active in Japan’s military, its aggression and Hirohito personally approved of the war crimes that began in China and extended through VJ Day.

Not prosecuting him allowed Japan to turn less feudal and militaristic and more democratic/capitalistic, overnight. But some argue that MacArthur’s mania for keeping the emperor out of the noose gave the Japanese cover for living the lie that they were the “victims” of the war, allowed them to deny the countless atrocities, war crimes, etc., as the acts of a few. The fact that for decades, they kept films such as “The Last Emperor” and pretty much anything about the “Rape of Nanking” out of Japanese cinemas or off NHK TV backs that up. We gave them room for denial.

The denying goes on and on.

And Fellers’ own post-military activities, heavy involvement in far right groups, “For America” and the John Birch Society, suggests that the guy presented in the movie as having been lectured by MacArthur that Japan was to be the bulwark against the growing Communist threat in Asia became a lot more of a Better Dead than Red zealot than that.  Different times, different fears, that in itself is no utter condemnation of the man, though such circles were not exactly dens of intellectual political debate. As in Nazi Germany, ideologues like Fellers were valued for their loyalty, not their competence.

And the Emperor honored him later in life, which has a hint of quid pro quo about it.


“Emperor” does a great job of presenting Japan’s rationalizations/justifications for its actions, at least the ones they gave and continue to give themselves. They were attacking and seizing British, French, American and Dutch colonies (tell that to the Koreans), and were only doing in China what the West had done 100 years before. In their minds, anyway. It’s almost a piece of Japanese apologia.

And the film is a lot murkier on other issues, what the Emperor knew and when he knew it, and whether or not this effort to bend “justice” to fit expediency was justified.

(Roger Moore’s interview with Tommy Lee Jones is here)

(Roger Moore’s review of “Emperor” is here.)

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
This entry was posted in Reviews, previews, profiles and movie news. Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to General Bonner Fellers, the “hero” of the WWII drama “Emperor”?

  1. mwhite2715 says:

    Your review wanders way too far for too long from the movie. Actually it doesn’t seem to be a movie review. You should stick to your expertise, Film Critic, and review the movie for its quality as a movie – script, pacing, story, music, whatever. Whether Emperor is fiction or fact in whole or part, was it a good movie?
    History is a separate specialty. You make a number of errors when you wander away from the movie itself. I’ll just just detail one. It’s wrong to say that Fellers made mistakes in the Middle East. He wrote detailed reports as he was ordered to do. It was not his choice as to what code was used to transmit those reports. He objected to the code in use, but his concerns were rebuffed. Upon his return the U.S. government awarded him Distinguished Service Metal. The citation describes his reports as “models of clarity and accuracy” that “contributed materially to the tactical and technical development of our armed forces.” As to the “real story” of Fellers connection with Japan, you can find a lot of that story with a couple of google searches and scrolling deeper than the top view results.

  2. Pingback: Movie Review: “Emperor” | Movie Nation

  3. Kurofune says:

    ”We gave them room for denial.” No, You have given us a chance to tell the real history and fact.
    From now on, the historian should find out more.

    • Oh? So Japan has openly acknowledged war crimes, slave labor, war mongering, forced prostitution, crimes against humanity, medical experiments on prisoners and “lesser races,” and has let “The Last Emperor” and books and films about The Rape of Nanking into theaters? The evidence was there that should have hung Hirohito. That’s “history.”

  4. Terry Weiss says:

    It’s complicated – the point of the movie is just that! People are complicated – MacArthur himself combined administrative genius with megalomania and some major bad judgment calls – He did great things and bad things. Thus, we have to tread carefully when assessing character. Sounds as though that’s also true of Fellers, as of about everyone – including thee and me! Incidentally, the reports he sent from Egypt were in a code that had been broken by the Italians and Germans. He protested using it from the beginning, saying it was unsafe, and was overruled. He was praised for his comprehensive reports – and not in any way guilty of any complicity in their interception.

  5. I enjoyed the movie very much. General Takahashi(sp) admitted that the Japanese soldier was capable of unspeakable crimes during war, but simply pointed out that Japan was no different than other countries which were colonial powers. There were enough historical facts to keep me, a history buff, interested.

  6. Michael Craig Grant says:

    From:Michael C. Grant/Scientist/Educator/Researcher.
    To: Movie Nation
    Re:Evaluation of the Movie “Emperor”
    I have at times, been involved with the movie industry as an onsite Medic, Script Reviewer, and for twenty years was Medical advisor for the Academy of Science Fiction/
    Fantasy and Horror films. As a Scientist/Educator and student of World WarII History, I have
    learned how to separate the “chaffe from the wheat”.
    Before Reviewing the movie, I read the biograph on General Bonner Fellers.I then
    approached the analysis setting reality against Hollywood’s abusive use of “poetic license”.
    I have always maintained that in the course of entertaining the general public, you are also
    educating them. Failure to adhere to the reality as set down by history, is an arrogant and
    egregious failure on the part of the reviewer.
    Mathew Fox, I feel immersed himself in the personna of General Fellers. He brought
    to the surface the emotions of the people, the politics of the times and the consequent turbulence of the era. In short, Mathew Fox created a mirror image of General Fellers.
    A late friend of mine, Dr. Donald A. Reed, Master Historian and former President of
    the Academy of Sci-Fi/Fantasy and Horror Films, maintained that the quality of a movie can be
    measured by the degree to which it pulls the viewer into the matrix, making you feel like you are
    one with the characters and the plot. I embraced this principle and have utilized it myself. I have
    extended it, by adding an additional measure, the degree to which it touches the soul and enables the emotions.
    ” Emperor” achieved both of these principles. Think of it as a colloidal suspension.
    The quality of the performances setting the historical paradigm, creating an aviance of familiarity
    as if you were there, standing amidst the Titans(from the American Side;MacArthur/Fellers) and
    (The Japanese Side;His Majesty Hirohito/Tojo and the ministers of defense).
    I emphatically recommend, when you see the movie, do so with open eyes, an
    an open heart and an open mind. Focus less on placing blame( in that there was ample enough
    on both sides). What is of greater importance, is to understand the mechanisms which orchestrat
    ed the horrors and the instruments required to extinguish the consequented chaos and the
    restorated order of events

    • That English as a second language class didn’t cover “You’re not allowed to invent words” or “Conjugations made easy” did it? Way to come off as a windbag that nobody believes has any of the flimsy and dubious credentials you claim for yourself. “Restorated”?

  7. William Pendleton says:

    Sir, you should acknowledge that your description of General Fellers faulty reporting causing issues for allied forces in North Africa is historically inaccurate. You are referring to the routine and long term interception of his reports by axis forces. It is well documented that not only were his reports very good, but that he officially notified his superiors he believed the allied message codes he was using to have been compromised.

    It is true that he served in the OSS and that it was a precursor to the CIA, but General Fellers duties have a much closer modern equivalent, the Foreign Area Officer corps. This position exists in all branches of the US Military today and carries the same primary duties. FAOs’ primary job is to provide accurate reporting of both allied and enemy activity and capabilities. While some leaders disagreed with his opinions, I can find no evidence that he was anything but highly competent at his attache positions. Given the amount of intelligence traffic that crosses a President’s desk on a daily basis during wartime, Fellers’ being noticed by the CINC speaks highly to his professional performance.

    • There is plenty of documentation that he was a bungler in North Africa, which earned Eisenhower’s lifetime antipathy.

      • David says:

        Actually the tension between them arose from 1) Fellars and McArthur colluding against Eisenhower when all three served int he Philippines before the war, and 2) because Fellars reports encouraged Roosevelt to support the British in Africa, which Eisenhower opposed.

        William Pendleton is correct, you are blaming Fellars for things for which he actually has zero culpability. It’s not his fault that the American embassy in Rome did not take better care of the codebook before the war, or that the State Dept did not listen to his concerns about the code being compromised.

      • You don’t cite any sources. And since, like me, you have zero first hand knowledge of his history, citing something/someone would be nice before suggesting the world alter its impression of the guy. Plainly, his missteps were not enough to get him dismissed or demoted. McArthur trusted him implicitly, and his politics may have played a role in how he rubbed the Brits, FDR and Eisenhower the wrong way. On the other hand, his later actions suggest a rigid ideologue prone to acting on that ideology. Cite something reputable in a link and I will take a look. Otherwise, you’re just blowing smoke. And it’s FELLERS, not Fellars.

      • OK, Roger. You aren’t interested in engaging in serious discussion of the nuances, you just personally attack anyone who suggests there might be other plausible readings of history. Got it.

        here is your link (after a quick search): And yes, it is wikipedia, so you can now commence questioning the authenticity of that, too. Perhaps you can even criticize the citation of the diary cited there, I don’t know. But at least it pries your open the tinniest bit, I hope, to not automatically reject anything someone might say that even slightly disagrees with your preconceptions. My parting comment; I won’t make mistake of intruding on “your” space here again.

        p.s. if you want to pick out my typos in this reply too, be my guest. Sheez!

      • No, I was pointing out you were so sloppy,firing from the hip, and thus lacked any credibility in citing what you “believe” to be true. You can’t spell the guy’s name right, why should anybody take you any more seriously than the windbags who have posted long, unsourced “theories” here? By the way, this is a two year old blog entry, carrying the best research available online when the movie came out. The Wikipedia entry you cite was created AFTER this, grabbing many of the same sources I went to. Who knows who published it? Don’t know, don’t care. Moving on.

  8. Roald says:

    John Birch Society ay be “far right” but people like Goldwater were far less militaristic and in bed with the military industrial complex than “moderates” like the sociopath Johnson. Post second WW Japan is a success story, by and large. Yes, there are myths and lies and elite deviance. But this is also true of the USA. By and large, it was probably the best decision between a rock and a hard case.

  9. Bob says:

    I’m going along with Roald here, there are countless conspiracies from FDR needing a war to pay for all his failing Social Democratic programs, to sleezy Banksters making a buck on the AXIS and the ALLIES at the same time, the later of which seems more plausible to me, when you take modern times into account. How much understanding is necessary to realize High Elected Officials only get where they are because of BIG TIME FINANCING (Banking interest) regardless of party affiliation. There is no end to the causes of war from a speculative point of view. At least America had the courage to do what was necessary to end the war. In the end I think the world is a better place for how MacArthur handled the Pacific Theater, I think Truman the Commander and Chief would have done what ever it took to deal with keeping the peace, even if it meant we would be back dealing with North Korea in the future, which we are. Those are the facts. But as for the Movie, I was impressed, even the little love story romp was cool in light of the seriousness of what MacArthur/Fellers and Truman were faced with. You can enjoy Pearl Harbor or the Titanic for the same reasons. This wasn’t a twist on history this was good movie making but then again that’s just my opinion, and I’m sticking with it rogerinolando.

    • Talleyrand had us nailed, calling us “conspiracy-minded” cranks two centuries ago. All manner of dubiously credentialed Birchers have tried to stick a conspiratorial needle into Pearl Harbor and what followed. None have stuck. The history presented in “Emperor,” that MacArthur made a decision to keep the Emperor out of the noose for his and the Free World’s own purposes, is pretty cut and dried. Not that controversial. Fellers? Who knows what he really was? Politically connected, that’s for sure. With somebody.

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