“December 7th, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy,” declared President Roosevelt on the day after the Japanese attack on the main US naval base in the Pacific. Hundreds of Japanese planes took the base by surprise early that Sunday morning, sinking or disabling 21 warships, destroying nearly 200 planes, and killing over 2,000 people. It was a rude awakening for a country that had seemed determined to find its own path in the global conflict. Hollywood immediately seized on the topic in a number of low budget films about how America came to be ‘stabbed in the back’ by Japan. Since the war, the events of that fateful day have been dramatised on a much larger scale, but in strikingly different films.
1) From Here to Eternity (1953)
Directed by: Fred Zinnemann
With: Montgomery Clift, Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed
This is by far the most acclaimed and admired of all Pearl Harbor films. Its appeal lay, in part, in its timeliness: eight years after the end of the war, audiences were ready to look back without the flag-waving or moral certainties that characterise wartime films. Thus, in From Here to Eternity the attack on Pearl Harbor does not serve as the springboard for revenge scenarios or for exposés of Japanese treachery. Rather, it represents an awakening from the malaise and drift of the prewar period.
Today the film is best remembered for the image of Karen Holmes (Deborah Kerr) and Sergeant Warden (Burt Lancaster) kissing on the beach. Their story is just one of the plot lines that reveals the dissolute morality that precedes the attack; Holmes is married to Warden’s commanding officer. Captain Holmes (Philip Ober) is a weak leader interested only in gaining promotion through the army ranks. Private Maggio (Frank Sinatra) is a childish hothead who eventually dies at the hands of a sadistic stockade guard (Ernest Borgnine). Private Robert E Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) is a champion boxer who refuses to fight in the army’s boxing league and is therefore abused by Holmes and his subordinates. Prewitt’s only solace is found with Lorene (Donna Reed), a ‘hostess’ in a Honolulu ‘social club’.
When the Japanese finally arrive, the attack itself is portrayed only briefly, but it has the effect of restoring order and purpose to the characters’ lives. The men are galvanised and become fighters. The women are sent back to the mainland, looking forlorn but also ready to live respectably.
But is it accurate?
The film was based on a bestselling novel by James Jones, who served in the army and was stationed at Schofield Barracks, where the film is set, at the time of Pearl Harbor. Jones’s portrait of service life had to be toned down considerably for the film. The army would not agree to co-operate with the filmmakers unless it was portrayed more favourably. Hence, while Captain Holmes is actually promoted in the novel, in the film he is made to resign for his misdeeds. The Hollywood censors required prostitutes to be hostesses, brothels to be social clubs, and other elements of the Honolulu nightlife to be eliminated altogether.
2) Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
Directed by: Richard Fleischer, Kinji Fukasaku, Toshio Masuda
With: Martin Balsam, Soh Yamamura, Joseph Cotten, Tatsuya Mihashi, Jason Robards
In the midst of the Vietnam War, Twentieth Century Fox produced this ambitious, two-and-a-half hour semi-documentary account of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The film was intended as a warning against complacency in the Cold War and also as a means of affirming the current state of good relations between the USA and Japan.
Both sides of the story are presented to the viewer, and this is essentially two different films intercut with one another. The Japanese perspective briefly explains Japan’s ambitions in Indochina, and therefore the need to strike at the USA’s Pacific fleet, but much more screen time is spent on the planning and preparation for the attack. The American perspective shows that cryptologists presented government and military leaders with an array of warning signals, but that complacency and bureaucracy ensured that none was heeded. The film’s two sides come together in the attack itself, which is recreated with some obvious limitations in special effects and sets.
The problem with Tora! Tora! Tora! is neither the special effects nor its quest for historical accuracy. Rather, it is that the filmmakers failed to invest the film with any compelling qualities. The photography and sets are surprisingly lacklustre for a production that reportedly cost $25 million. The story is told in such a fragmented manner that the principal figures are scarcely characterised at all. Even veteran actors such as Jason Robards and Joseph Cotten cannot speak their lines without sounding as though they are reading from a textbook. And it does not help that, after the two-hour build-up, there can be little suspense about the ending.
But is it accurate?
Admiral Yamamoto (Soh Yamamura), who planned the attack, reflects in the ending on its potential consequences. Despite its immediate success, he gravely observes: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” This is the best line and the most memorable moment in the film, but there is no record that Yamamoto actually said it. A larger complaint would be that the film fails to set the conflict in a wider political context. Japan’s invasion of China and its alliance with Nazi Germany are mentioned, but in its eagerness to offer a balanced account, the film skates over these contentious points.
3) Pearl Harbor (2001)
Directed by: Michael Bay
With: Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale, Cuba Gooding Jr., Jon Voight, Alec Baldwin
In May 2001, four months before the 11 September terrorist attacks, this inflated, three-hour blockbuster was released. Yet it was far too superficial and self-congratulatory to serve as a meaningful reflection on past events. It is chiefly concerned with a love story that is meant to echo the classic melodramas of the war era, but they were seldom as shallow as this tale of pilots Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett), and the romantic triangle that ensues when they both fall in love with a nurse, Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale). The far-fetched plot unravels amid clichéd dialogue, wooden acting and the kind of slick photography associated with advertisements for lingerie and perfume.
The attack on Pearl Harbor is vividly recreated – in detail and at length – with computer generated effects that are entirely convincing. Hence, we see the mass of planes swoop in over the island, and a myriad of explosions, fires, and casualties as the action reaches a frenzied climax. The film’s signature shot – a bomb falls from a plane high above the harbour, descends through the air, and pierces the decks of the USS Arizona – is nothing short of spectacular, but therein lies the problem. Pearl Harbor treats the attack as entertaining spectacle, and it has all the feeling and humanity of a computer game. The filmmakers did not want to end their story in defeat, and so the saga continues with Rafe and Danny embarking on the Doolittle Raid and bombing Japan in April 1942. This is recounted in broad brush strokes and with little regard for authenticity or explanation. Worse, the contrived story continues as the pilots reconcile when their planes are downed in the rice fields of China.
But is it accurate?
The characters of Rafe and Danny are loosely – very loosely – based on two real army air force fliers, George Welch and Kenneth Taylor, who were stationed in Oahu and on their way home from an all-night poker game when the attack on Pearl Harbor began. They were quickly airborne and shot down seven of the attacking planes. The film is not content with such straightforward heroism, though, and so Rafe is seen fighting not only at Pearl Harbor but also in the Battle of Britain (as a member of the Eagle Squadron) and in the Doolittle Raid. There are many other ridiculous aspects to this simplistic film. However, a saturation marketing campaign sparked the public’s interest, and the film quickly recouped its extraordinary production costs ($135 million) at the box office.
Three other films about Pearl Harbor
(Dir: John Farrow, USA, 1942)
An early Second World War combat film, set in the Pacific and beginning just before the attack.
(Dir: John Ford, USA, 1943)
This was shortened from a film to a documentary when the subject proved too difficult for wartime sensitivities.
(Dir: Steven Spielberg, USA, 1979)
A post-Pearl Harbor comedy in the manner of Animal House (1978), and a bizarre misstep for its director.
Mark Glancy teaches film history at Queen Mary University of London.