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Pearl Harbor:
Bombed Again

By Lawrence Suid


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 Wallace’s 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 admiral’s 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 Navy’s historical adviser on the project, Navy Lieutenant Melissa Schuermann, the Defense Department’s liaison to the production, the Doolittle family, and retired Air Force Colonel C. V. Glines, Doolittle’s biographer and historian of the raid on Japan.

In the initial script, Ben Affleck’s Rafe McCawley receives orders to join the Eagle Squadron. In response to Green’s 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 Hartnett’s Danny Walker that he had been ordered to England but explains to Kate Beckinsale’s 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 wearing.

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 development—or any other title, for that matter—then 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 Harbor’s 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 Doolittle’s raid had on the homefront and military effort, or Doolittle’s 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 remains unimportant.

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 Doolittle’s 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.
How can we separate the ants from the elephants? Does it matter that the film would like the audience to believe that the Army Air Corps in peacetime would accept Rafe into the service even though he has dyslexia and cannot read an eye chart? Yet after going to England, he manages to write beautiful, poetic letters to Evelyn, the object of the two friends’ affection.

Cuba Gooding Jr. plays Navy Cross recipient Dorie Miller. "In the cinematic recreation, Miller fires repeatedly at the attacking planes as they swoop down to deck level . . . with his guns clearly pointing directly at a ship 50 yards away."

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 “l”s 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 notion.

The film’s raison d’etre, the 50-minute cinematic Japanese attack, never rises above the level of a computer graphics video game, despite Michael Bay’s 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 bomb’s cinematic journey into the ship does provide a unique perspective, but historians never have agreed on exactly how the Arizona suffered her fatal blow.

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 battleships—with his guns clearly pointing directly at a ship 50 yards away.

Kate Beckinsale, as nurse Evelyn Johnson, takes on triage duties outside the hospital. "While the scenes in and around the hospital show the horrific suffering of the casualties, they do not differ from . . . M*A*S*H and A Bridge Too Far."

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 Far.

All historical accuracy disappears once Bay embarks on Doolittle’s 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 Green’s 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 days—not 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 filmmaking.

Once on board the Hornet (CV-8) on her way to Japan, Baldwin’s 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 Doolittle’s 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 Danny’s 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 Danny’s 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 Doolittle’s 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 Evelyn’s anguish over the fate of her two men may be a dramatic high point in the film, the scene remains a lie.

Josh Hartnett as Danny and Ben Affleck as Rafe stand befre a B-25 for the Doolittle raid. "The climactic Doolittle sequence is almost entirely inaccurate, and worse, it fails to convey the courage of the men who actually attacked Japan . . ."

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 Doolittle’s 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 Doolittle’s 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 official—never 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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