The movie Pearl Harbor does get a few things right. The
Japanese did bomb Hawaii on Sunday morning, 7 December 1941. It
does depict the aircraft carrier Akagi, the Japanese flagship,
with her island on the port side. The film also captures the chaos
the Japanese planes created during the first ten minutes of the
surprise attack. And Jimmy Doolittle (played by Alec Baldwin) did
lead 16 B-25 bombers against the Japanese homeland on 18 April 1942.
Beyond these few truths, however, Pearl Harbor fails to
provide even a reasonable facsimile of history. Producer Jerry Bruckheimer
and Director Michael Bay both claimed to have done extensive research
into the history of Pearl Harbor and expressed pride at having interviewed
many of the survivors. Bay pointed out, however, that the survivors
all have their own recollections of what happened on 7 December,
and they often differed. Of course, all memories are created equal.
But historians have validated some as more accurate representations
of history. Given the alternatives of dramatization or reality,
the filmmakers too often chose to create a cinematic vision that
lacked plausibility or any resemblance to the history of the date
which will live in infamy.
In fact, Randall Wallaces original script showed virtually
no awareness of actual history. Among the many problems with the
screenplay, the writer portrayed Doolittle as a foul-mouthed ignoramus
who did not recognize a slide rule, although he actually held a
Doctor of Science degree in aeronautical engineering from the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology. Wallace also gave Doolittle command of
a fighter base on Long Island before the war, a circumstance that
had no basis in fact.
Wallace placed Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto in the Japanese task force,
even though he did not accompany the armada. And the screenwriter
had the mastermind of the attack utter the now-infamous words: I
fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant, which
in fact came not from the admirals mouth, but from the writer
of the 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora!.
In fairness to the filmmakers, they always listened to and sometimes
acted on suggestions from Jack Green, the Navys historical
adviser on the project, Navy Lieutenant Melissa Schuermann, the
Defense Departments liaison to the production, the Doolittle
family, and retired Air Force Colonel C. V. Glines, Doolittles
biographer and historian of the raid on Japan.
In the initial script, Ben Afflecks Rafe McCawley receives
orders to join the Eagle Squadron. In response to Greens explanation
that the unit was comprised of Americans who had volunteered to
fly in the Royal Air Force, Bay made a minor but significant change.
In the film, Rafe tells Josh Hartnetts Danny Walker that he
had been ordered to England but explains to Kate Beckinsales
Evelyn Johnson that he had volunteered and had made up the story
so Danny would not have tried to come along. And while the script
indicated he wore his U.S. uniform while flying in England, in the
movie his flight jacket covers whatever uniform he was actually
Despite these revisions, Pearl Harbor provides a superficial
account, with history coming in a poor second to dramatic license.
To be sure, neither Bay nor Bruckheimer ever claimed they were making
a documentary or even a docudrama. Instead, they said they were
telling a fictional story, using Pearl Harbor as a stage on which
to set a love triangle. If the film had borne the original title
of Tennessee, a code name used to hide the subject of this
project in its early days of developmentor any other title,
for that matterthen their representations might have carried
more weight. But the very name of the film implies that audiences
will be witnessing a historic event, accurately rendered. More to
the point, Bay claimed early on that he would show Pearl Harbor
as it had never been shown. In that, he has succeeded.
Of course, any critic bears the heavy responsibility of exposing
elephants rather than ants. Some people who previewed the film complained
about the portrayal of a woman hanging laundry as a Japanese plane
flies by before the attack begins at 0750. People who have lived
in Hawaii, however, attest to the reality that people wake up earlier
there and that such an image, particularly in 1941, is quite plausible.
Bay intended that image and the subsequent one of young boys on
a ball field watching the attacking planes stream past to represent
the sudden loss of innocence rather than any literal portrayal of
life on the morning of 7 December. But even if the scenes ushering
in the attack do provide legitimate symbolism, Pearl Harbor
contains more than enough factual errors and distortions to pique
any historian or lay person without having to resort to picking
on reasonable cinematic license.
Too many people in the United States today, as was probably the
case in December 1941, have no idea of Pearl Harbors location
or significance. After seeing the film, most viewers will know at
least where the Japanese attacked and will have at least some idea
of the destruction that took place there. They will learn precious
little, however, of why Japan undertook the enterprise, how its
navy carried out the sneak attack, the impact Doolittles raid
had on the homefront and military effort, or Doolittles great
contribution to victory in the air over Europe.
In the end, does any of this matter? After all, filmmakers have
long acknowledged they are creating dramatic movies to entertain,
not historical documentaries to educate. To a significant extent,
they have sold this argument to the American people and to themselves.
They ignore the reality that historical accuracy and good drama
are not incompatible. Perhaps more important, at least philosophically,
truth remains its own best defense. If films fabricate and distort
the truth, viewers have no basis for knowing what actually happened
and why it happened and so may well conclude that historical accuracy
Despite problems with the script, the Pentagon saw the project
as a potential boost for recruitment and retention as well as a
reminder to the American people of the bravery of World War II veterans,
particularly the survivors of Pearl Harbor. By cooperating on the
production, the services hoped to effect changes in the script and
thereby avoid antagonizing veterans, particularly Doolittles
raiders, who had expressed concerns about the inaccurate portrayal
of their commander. In retrospect, the Pentagon may well have approved
the script too readily, rather than insisting on revisions that
would have ensured a more accurate rendering. As a result, this
film contains few accurate portrayals of either events or people.
Pearl Harbor also shows little concern for geographical
or military reality or a valid historical time line. On Long Island,
where the audience first meets the pre-war fliers, a high hill provides
the background to Mitchel Field (spelled with two ls
on the hangar in the movie). The same tall protrusion appears behind
Eglin Field in Florida, where Doolittle trained his crews.
When Rafe returns from the dead after being shot down during the
Battle of Britain, he mentions being rescued from the ocean by a
French fisherman. The warring air forces met over the English Channel,
close to the white cliffs of Dover, which do appear as the setting
for the aerial combat.
The filmmakers would also like viewers to believe that Danny could
secure permission to fly his P-40 fighter over Pearl Harbor at night
and smuggle Evelyn aboard for a joy ride. The historical advisers
suggested Danny could rent a private plane, but Bay rejected that
The films raison detre, the 50-minute cinematic Japanese
attack, never rises above the level of a computer graphics video
game, despite Michael Bays description of himself as a
director who likes to use real stuff to blow up. In essence,
it remains a series of set-piece generic explosions, planes flying
in all directions, and men being strafed on land, in the water,
and in the air. Bay blows up the Arizona (BB-39) almost immediately
with a bomb the audience follows down through the decks, as its
mechanism continues to whir for a few seconds before exploding.
In fact, the battleship did not receive her mortal wound until almost
20 minutes after the Japanese attack began. The bombs cinematic
journey into the ship does provide a unique perspective, but historians
never have agreed on exactly how the Arizona suffered her
To heighten the drama of the attack, the director separated the battleships, which had been tied rail-to-rail, by 50 yards so he could fly the attacking Japanese planes between ships. Acknowledging he did this to give it a little more visual flair, Bay maintained he got the essence right. However valid that claim may be, the fabrication produced a problem in the portrayal of Dorie Miller, the first black man to receive the Navy Cross. Some critics of the original script pointed out that no record exists to show Miller shot down any Japanese planes during the actual attack as written. In the cinematic re-creation, Miller fires repeatedly at the attacking planes as they swoop down to deck level between two battleshipswith his guns clearly pointing directly at a ship 50 yards away.
While Bay may have captured the initial shock and subsequent chaos
of the attack, he has given us only a generic portrayal, far less
dramatic than the few minutes of confusion created by Fred Zinnemann
in From Here to Eternity. Likewise, while the scenes in and
around the hospital show the horrific suffering of the casualties,
they do not differ from portrayals of front-line military hospitals
in other combat films, such as M*A*S*H and A Bridge Too
All historical accuracy disappears once Bay embarks on Doolittles
raid. He makes the tenuous connection between Pearl Harbor and the
mission by having President Franklin D. Roosevelt demand that his
military leaders find a way to strike back at Japan for the attack.
Despite Jack Greens efforts to correct the portrayal, Bay
has the unnamed but recognizable military leaders, General George
Marshall, Admirals Ernest King and Harold Stark, and General Hap
Arnold come across as defeatist and unable to act when the President
demands they come up with a plan. In perhaps the most ludicrous
and false scene in the entire movie, Jon Voight, as Roosevelt, tells
the leaders that God put him in his wheelchair for a good reason
and then stands up, unaided, apparently to symbolize the will the
United States must exhibit to win.
The film does then accurately introduce the Navy officer who conceived
in early January the idea of flying Army bombers off an aircraft
carrier to Japan. That remains virtually the last incident portrayed
accurately in the movie. Immediately, Bay returns to Hawaii for
a scene of flag-draped coffins of the Pearl Harbor dead, stretching
across a hangar floor and onto the outside tarmac. According to
Green, the director wanted to recreate scenes he had watched on
television of returning American dead to Dover, Delaware. Even though
the film does not provide the actual date when the officer came
up with the idea for the raid, most viewers would understand that
a considerable amount of time had passed since 7 December. In fact,
all dead had been buried within daysnot weeks.
In any event, during the coffin scene, Rafe and Danny receive orders
to report to now-Colonel Doolittle for a secret mission, even though
Doolittle actually recruited his crews from the one group of B-25s
then in existence. By integrating the two fighter pilots and two
of their friends into the mission, Bay effectively erased four actual
raiders from history. Ironically, this fabrication did not engender
objections from the surviving raiders, who were concerned about
the portrayal of Doolittle himself. Instead, they laughed at the
inclusion of fictional characters as simply another example of Hollywood
Once on board the Hornet (CV-8) on her way to Japan, Baldwins
Doolittle subverts the truth when he tells one of the fliers that
no bomber had ever taken off from an aircraft carrier, clearly intending
to heighten the drama. In reality, as soon as planning for the raid
began, Army Air Corps pilots flew two B-25s from the Hornet,
cruising off Norfolk, Virginia, to ascertain it could be done.
Ultimately, all 16 B-25s did launch successfully. In contrast to
the portrayal in Pearl Harbor, in which Doolittles
plane sinks toward the ocean following takeoff, his and 14 of the
other bombers actually climbed immediately from the deck. Only the
plane of Ted Lawson, author of Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,
dipped initially toward the water because of an incorrect control
setting. In any case, despite the real concerns over fuel when the
planes have to take off prematurely, the film shows all the bombers
arriving in formation over Japan. In truth, the Navy took one hour
to launch the 16 planes, each setting out on its own course. None
of the planes flew together before, during, or after the attack.
During the cinematic attack, some of the factories explode before
the planes arrive over their targets, and Dannys plane receives
significant damage from antiaircraft fire, which kills one of his
crew. In reality, the attack itself caught Japan by surprise, and
Japanese gunners and airplanes inflicted virtually no damage on
any of the bombers.
After reaching the Chinese mainland and immediately running out
of fuel, the two heroes crash land their planes within a couple
hundred feet of each other and immediately come under attack from
Japanese soldiers. Following an incomprehensible fire fight, Danny
dies from his injuries in the crash, from being stabbed by a Japanese
soldier, and finally from being shot. The Japanese did capture eight
of the raiders, but not immediately and without any of the histrionics
Bay creates. He then omits any mention of the real drama of how
Doolittle and most of his men returned to the United States. Instead,
after Chinese soldiers rescue Rafe and surviving members of the
two crashed bombers, Bay dissolves to a scene of some of the fliers
returning to an unidentified air base (incorrectly set in Hawaii
in the original script), bearing Dannys coffin. In fact, the
ashes of the seven dead fliers did not return to the United States
until after the end of the war.
However inaccurately the film portrays Doolittles raid, those
errors pale in comparison to a scene set in Hawaii, in which Evelyn
talks her way into a communications center to listen to the attack
on Japan on short-wave radio. This simply could not have happened.
Only a few military leaders and planners knew about the raid, and
President Roosevelt himself did not receive a detailed briefing
until a few days before the attack. The world learned about it only
when Japanese radio broadcast the news.
Although Rafe had told Evelyn that he and Danny had been picked for a secret mission, she would have had no way of knowing its purpose, since none of the fliers learned their destination until the Hornet had put out to sea from the Alameda Naval Air Station in California. But even if she had become a clairvoyant, and even if she could have convinced an officer to breach security and allow her into the communications center, she would not have heard any radio traffic from the attacking planes. Doolittle had had the long-range radios removed from most of the planes to save weight. Even if the bombers had radios, they were technologically incapable of sending messages back to Hawaii. Consequently, while Evelyns anguish over the fate of her two men may be a dramatic high point in the film, the scene remains a lie.
Ultimately, the climactic Doolittle sequence is almost entirely inaccurate, and worse, it fails to convey the courage of the men who actually attacked Japan in what most of them recognized would probably become a suicide mission. Only in the vaguest terms did the film acknowledge that Doolittles raid inflicted little material damage on the Japanese war machine, with the loss of all 16 planes, and the death of seven fliers. Bay also failed to recognize Doolittles leadership or that he received the Medal of Honor from President Roosevelt following his return from China. Instead, the film closes with the President pinning a Distinguished Flying Cross on Rafe, a task always performed by a military officialnever by the President. A rewritten voice-over then offers a few words intended to explain the importance of the raid, while omitting any mention of the seven fliers who died during or after the attack. Of that number, the Japanese killed three and allowed one to die in prison, a reality the filmmakers apparently felt would be better left unstated. After all, Hollywood makes movies only to make money, and financial expediency dictated that the truth might result in a smaller box office return in Japan.
Mr. Suid is a frequent critic of military- and naval-related films
and is the author of Sailing on the Silver Screen (Annapolis,
MD: Naval Institute Press, 1996).
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