Political Film Society - Newsletter #105 - June 15, 2001

June 15, 2001


Pearl HarborPearl Harbor has the distinction of having more advance publicity than any film in recent memory, but of course the $140 million project commemorates events exactly sixty years ago and doubtless will be re-released on December 7. Although the trailer may have fooled us into believing that the film is merely a remake of Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), what emerges in more than three hours is a variation on five hit films. The role of the Japanese comes right out of Tora! Tora! Tora!, including the statement of Admiral Isoroku Yamamato (played by Mako) about awakening a "sleeping giant," but Pearl Harbor adds President Franklin Roosevelt (played by John Voight) and the heroic 1942 Tokyo raid led by Lt. Colonel Jimmy Doolittle (played by Alec Baldwin). From Titanic (1997), director Michael Bay borrowed the syrupy love story and many of the special effects of the disaster at sea; but he also interviewed survivors of the December 7 attack to ensure authenticity of very small details, such as using Coke bottles for blood transfusions, though he opted for the slang and sexual mores of the 1990s, not the 1940s. In addition, Pearl Harbor raises the ante in providing film footage of the human and physical destruction of war over both Saving Private Ryan (1998) and The Thin Red Line (1998); the forty minutes of bombs and bullets on the screen, which resulted in some 2,400 American deaths (nearly half entombed in the USS Arizona) and the destruction of 18 warships and 188 airplanes, is the length of the first wave and about one-third the length of the actual attack. But Randall Wallace, who wrote the story and screenplay appears to have borrowed most from the love story in From Here to Eternity (1953). Pearl Harbor’s story begins in 1923, when Rafe McCawley (played by Ben Affleck) and Danny Walker (played by Josh Hartnett) are boys on a Tennessee farm, dreaming that someday they will be able to fly; Rafe’s father has a crop duster plane that the two use as a toy. Fast forward to 1940, when Rafe meets Evelyn Johnson (played by Kate Beckinsale), an Army nurse, and the two fall in love. In 1941, after volunteering for combat with the Royal Air Force in Britain, Rafe tells Danny to comfort Evelyn if he does not return alive, and soon the latter two are transferred to Pearl Harbor. Therein lies the seeds of a love triangle, as Rafe’s plane is shot down, and he is presumed dead. Danny dutifully carries out his assignment to ease Evelyn’s pain on losing the love of her life, but in time the two fall in love and have sex. When Rafe later shows up unexpectedly in Pearl Harbor, the love triangle part of the film unfolds. Frustrated that her memory kept him alive and now she is his best friend’s girlfriend, Rafe demands an explanation, and Evelyn then admits that she is carrying Danny’s child.

But before telling Danny about her pregnancy, December 7 comes, Roosevelt insists on a reprisal, Doolittle puts together his force with Rafe and Danny, and only one of the two returns from the mission alive. Stirring music of Hans Zimmer throughout culminates in an emotional song as credits roll. Although the story is basically formulaic, the authenticity of the attack is the most gripping part of the film. However, the political elements bear close attention. We see that Roosevelt responds to pressure from Winston Churchill to move battleships from Pearl Harbor to the Atlantic to the chagrin of military commanders in Honolulu, while General Walter Short believes that domestic sabotage is more likely than an aerial attack and aligns airplanes in rows. Yet Pearl Harbor strangely does not acknowledge the foresightedness of Admiral William Halsey, who insisted during the weekend of December 7 on training exercises of American aircraft carriers, one of which later enabled Doolittle’s Raiders to launch their attack. Yet another oddity is a fabricated scene in which a Japanese American dentist receives a telephone call from Tokyo, falsely implying that some Japanese Americans were spies for Japan, a gratuitous scene clumsily re-shot to erase the implication instead of cut from the film. Captain Thurman, a totally fictional cryptologist (played by Dan Aykroyd), is ignored when he insists that ambiguous information from Tokyo indicates something is afoot, and that an attack on Pearl Harbor is what he would order if he were fighting for Japan. The film makes clear that a racist belief in the inferiority of Japan deluded many, including President Roosevelt himself. Similarly, Dorie Miller (played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.) demonstrates how African Americans were foolishly segregated in a ship’s galley instead of manning antiaircraft, as he did in the chaos of December 7; he became the first Black Navy Cross recipient, a medal personally conferred by Roosevelt in the film, though he died later in the war. The film’s tagline, "It was the end of innocence, and the dawn of a nation's greatest glory," nostalgically suggests that the purity of heart of Americans before and during World War II was lost somewhere. Pearl Harbor tries to show, in contrast with the American role in Vietnam, that the initial bungling by the military brass could be overcome by inspired presidential leadership and heroic soldiers who bonded together on behalf of a just cause. Thus, Pearl Harbor is the latest war picture to perpetuate a myth, the subliminal antigay thesis that the military depends upon heterosexual-based unit cohesion. MH

Films About Vietnam surveys more than 100 films focusing on Vietnam from 1936 to the present. The 25th Working Paper of the Political Film Society, the essay was originally presented to the conference of Asian Studies on the Pacific Coast at Monterey on June 9 by Michael Haas. To obtain a copy, send $5 to "Political Film Society" at the above address. For information on the other Working Papers, consult the website of the Political Film Society.