War on Film – Pearl Harbour

Taylor Downing surveys screen depictions of Pearl Harbor in a ‘War on Film’ special.

The Japanese attack on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on Sunday 7 December 1941 literally came out of a bright blue sky. There were a few cameramen on the island of Oahu that day, but they became involved in saving themselves or their ships as the Japanese bombs and torpedoes fell.

One cameraman on board USS Argonne was able to shoot half a reel of film (about five minutes of material) during the second-wave attack. It included spectacular shots of USS Shaw exploding. This and the iconic footage – captured by a doctor trying out a new camera – of the USS Arizona blowing up were nearly all that was recorded of the attack as it happened.

LEFT The attack on Pearl Harbor. The lack of real footage of the raid has given multiple filmmakers a chance to offer their own interpretations of the event.
The attack on Pearl Harbor. The lack of real footage of the raid has given multiple filmmakers a chance to offer their own interpretations of the event. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The recriminations about who was to blame and why the base had not been on a higher state of alert despite warnings began almost as the last Japanese planes flew away. So in January, the US Navy decided to quickly make a short propaganda film in order to boost American morale. The brief was to ignore questions of blame and instead focus on the rapid salvage and recovery operation of the damaged battleships.

John Ford, the Irish-American director famous for The Informer (1936), and westerns such as Stagecoach (1939), who had joined the US Navy, was asked to produce the film. He nominated Greg Toland to direct it. Toland promptly went off to Hawaii to prepare a script. Meanwhile, in spring 1942, Ford became totally immersed with making another film about the Midway naval battle (see MHM January 2020).

Toland’s film Pearl Harbor, which emerged later in 1942, was not at all what was wanted. It blamed Uncle Sam for being asleep on the job and pointed the finger at the 150,000 Japanese residents on Oahu as potential traitors. Moreover, it was 80 minutes long. Much of the footage that we now associate with the attack on Pearl Harbor was staged for this propaganda picture, some in and around the naval base itself, and some on the Twentieth Century-Fox backlot in Los Angeles.

Studio modelmakers produced Japanese Zeros, which were shot to represent the actual Japanese attacking force. But Toland’s film was too long and too late. Ford was ordered to take over the project and re-edit it. He rewrote the storyline and shortened it to just over half an hour.

When it was finally released in late 1943, under the name December 7th, the film had passed its sell-by date, as its principal propaganda purpose had been lost. The war had moved on.

The Japanese perspective

In 1953, Columbia Pictures released From Here to Eternity (dir: Fred Zinnemann). The sexual drama is set around a US Army company based on Oahu in the weeks running up to the Japanese attack. Burt Lancaster as Sergeant Warden has a passionate affair with his captain’s wife, played by Deborah Kerr; and Montgomery Clift as Private Prewitt has a relationship with an escort, played by Donna Reed.

But at their moments of decision, both men prove to be ‘married’ to the Army. At the end of the film, the Japanese attack stuns everyone on a quiet Sunday morning. Studio reconstructions and model shots sit unconvincingly alongside archive material.

The one thing for sure is that the US Army does not come out of the film well. It is presented as only vaguely competent, riven with injustice, and also an institution in which heavy drinking and drunken violence is endemic.

It was another 15 years before Hollywood returned to the story of the attack. Movie mogul Darryl Zanuck had produced the classic The Longest Day about D-Day in 1962 and wanted to produce an equally epic film about the attack on Pearl Harbor. Crucially, he wanted to include the Japanese version of events as well as the American, just as The Longest Day had featured the German take on the Normandy landings.

It took a couple of years to set up the film that became Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) as an American-Japanese co-production. Zanuck’s son, Richard, chief executive at Twentieth Century-Fox, encouraged the making of the film.

Two separate units were used. Richard Fleischer directed the American scenes, and a Japanese unit shot the scenes set in Tokyo and on board the Japanese ships. The legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa (The Seven Samurai, 1954) was to have directed these scenes but he was too much of a maverick to work on a collaboration like this and he was replaced by Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasaku.

Image from Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). Listal.com/IMDB.

Two sets of screenwriters wrote scripts for each half of the story, based on books by Ladislas Farago and American World War II historian Gordon Prange, who also acted as a consultant. It is a miracle that with such a divided production the film comes together as well as it does.

Alongside the American stars were several Japanese actors well-known in their own country but unknown outside the arthouse circuit in the West. So Yamamura played the Zen-like Admiral Yamamoto, Eijiro Tono played the cautious Admiral Nagumo, and Tatsuya Mihashi played flight commander Genda.

Image from Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). Listal.com/IMDB.

Genda himself, who master- minded the actual attack on Pearl Harbor, acted as a technical consultant on the film. American stars included Martin Balsam as Admiral Kimmel, Jason Robards as General Short and E G Marshall as the War Department’s intelligence chief, Colonel Bratton.

The first two-thirds of Tora! Tora! Tora! deal with the run-up to the attack. The Japanese side is faithfully portrayed. There are divisions between the Imperial Army, who want Japan to seize territory to ensure they have access to raw materials denied by American embargoes, and the Navy, who want first to strike at the US to disable their principal enemy in the Pacific.

As America introduces further embargoes against Japan, an infuriated General Tojo (at this point a cabinet member but not yet prime minister) declares ‘Now is the time to strike.’ Admiral Yamamoto becomes commander of the Pacific Fleet and the plan for a surprise attack upon the American navy at Pearl Harbor develops, inspired by the successful British attack upon the Italian fleet at Taranto.

Image from Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). Listal.com/IMDB.
Image from Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). Listal.com/IMDB.

One of the challenges will be to train their flight crews for precision attacks using newly developed torpedoes designed for the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor. Yamamoto watches his airmen prepare and is delighted with their growing prowess.

The scenes in Tokyo and on board the Japanese fleet are intercut with scenes in Washington and at Pearl Harbor. Cordell Hull, the Secretary of State (George Macready), is engaged in interminable negotiations with the Japanese ambassador. The Secretaries of War and of the Navy, Henry Stimson and Frank Knox (Joseph Cotten and Leon Ames respectively), argue about the level of the threat from Japan, while head of intelligence Colonel Bratton listens in to intercepts of Japanese signals traffic.

Bratton becomes convinced that the Japanese are planning to attack the Americans, and in the narrative structure he plays the figure who has to convince a sceptical political and military establishment that he is right in predicting what will happen and they are wrong.

Warnings are sent to US bases across the Pacific, but they are not clear. The naval and army commanders on Oahu, Admiral Kimmel and General Short, are unsure how to respond to these confusing orders. They are told that ‘we do not anticipate hostile action’ but are instructed to take an ‘appropriate precautionary response’. The base goes on to alert and then is stood down again on several occasions, leaving the men confused and uncertain.

Image from Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). Listal.com/IMDB.

As the Japanese task force with six aircraft carriers sets sail, the Japanese naval commanders are told of plans for the attack on Pearl Harbor; but it will only go ahead if peace negotiations in Washington fail. Bratton reads cyphers following the Japanese actions and decides they will attack early on a Sunday morning. He predicts it will be 30 November.

There are more alerts and more stand-downs. The general sense in both Washington and Pearl Harbor of complacency is conveyed well. Only Bratton and his colleagues in Military Intelligence seem genuinely alarmed. When alerts are finally sent out, they are delayed by officials who do not regard them as urgent. The principal alert to Pearl Harbor cannot be sent by military communications because of ‘atmospherics’, so is sent by telegram and is not delivered until after the attack is over.

The last 40 minutes of the film depict the attack itself. The Japanese aircraft take off as the sun rises at dawn. These are among the finest shots in the film. Pearl Harbor is just waking up when the Japanese force arrives. The scenes of attack upon the battleships in harbour, on Hickam Field and other airfields, and on Army installations, are in the main pretty well done for the pre-digital era, when everything had to be staged for the camera, with lots of explosions and stunt men leaping about.

These are the spectacular ‘money shots’ of the movie. The aircraft that have been lined up in the centre of the airfields to avoid sabotage are sitting ducks. With skill and determination, the Japanese fliers find the battleships and destroy them. The dogfights with the two American fighters that get airborne are well shot and edited.

USS Shaw explodes during the second wave of the attack. The moment was captured by a cameraman on board USS Argonne. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

When the first two waves of fliers return to their carriers, they are furious to discover there will be no further attacks upon the Americans to finish off the job they have started. Admiral Nagumo says ‘we have been lucky so far’ and tells his commanders that ‘it is my duty to return this task force intact’. To the fury of the fliers, the carriers turn about and head back to home waters.

When Yamamoto is told that because of a foul-up by the diplomats in Washington, the war ultimatum was delivered 55 minutes after the attack had begun, he is distraught. Also, the American aircraft carriers were not in harbour on the morning of the attack. ‘I had intended to inflict a fatal blow,’ Yamamoto says. He has lived in the US and knows the people of America will be enraged by the treachery.

‘All we have done,’ says Yamamoto at the close of the film, ‘is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.’

ABOVE Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese Pacific Fleet during the attack on Pearl Harbor. The film Tora! Tora! Tora! depicts him realising the consequences of the raid.
Isoroku Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese Pacific Fleet during the attack on Pearl Harbor. The film Tora! Tora! Tora! depicts him realising the consequences of the raid. Image: Wikimedia Commons.


The filmmakers went to great lengths to ensure accuracy. An American light carrier, USS Yorktown, was adapted to become a Japanese aircraft carrier. Other carriers were constructed as full-scale mock-ups. Canadian Air Force training aircraft were made to resemble Japanese ‘Val’ dive bombers and ‘Kate’ torpedo bombers.

Despite their care and attention to detail, some historical inaccuracies have inevitably been picked up in the film. For instance, the tower of Akagi is on the starboard rather than the port side.

But otherwise there is a lot to like about Tora! Tora! Tora! The Japanese are presented honestly and accurately and not just as nasty little automatons who scream ‘Banzai!’, as in many films of the 1960s and 70s. They laugh and joke together, make fun of their commanders when no one can hear, and are proud of their long military heritage.

The story of the blunders that kept the local American commanders in the dark as to the imminence of the attack is described vividly. Admiral Kimmel and General Short were largely blamed for the failure to place the local forces on a higher state of alert.

The commission established to investigate the attack concluded that Kimmel and Short were guilty of errors of judgement and dereliction of duty in the run-up to the raid. Both men were dismissed and became scapegoats for the failures of their superiors in Washington.

But Darryl Zanuck felt they had been unfairly treated and wanted them to come across as doing all they could have reasonably done with the limited intelligence shared with them. The fact that two popular American actors played these commanders (Martin Balsam and Jason Robards) adds to their sympathetic portrayal.

On the other hand, the film looks too clean and unreal to today’s eyes. The sets are all immaculate, with the ships’ interiors looking impossibly tidy. There is no contrast or texture to the way the performers are lit – partly down to the limitations of the DeLuxe colour system that needed a lot of light, partly because audiences of the time wanted a widescreen spectacle. There are only a few characters whom the viewer gets to know well enough to care much for.

And the special effects of the principal attack, although dramatic, are rather sterile. Tora! Tora! Tora! is authentic and mostly historically accurate but, overall, it feels clinical. However, it remains the finest cinematic portrayal of the events at Pearl Harbor.

Improbable love story

Released in 2001 and directed by Michael Bay, Pearl Harbor is a different sort of film altogether. It combines a passionate love story with events in the early part of the war. It is clearly intended to appeal to a young female audience, as it parallels the story of a group of naval nurses with that of a set of flyboys.

Rafe (Ben Affleck) and Danny (Josh Hartnett) are childhood friends. Rafe falls in love with one of the nurses, Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale). They pledge to spend their lives together. There is lots of fabulous 1940s fashion, music, and hair-dos. Then the war begins to change their lives. Rafe volunteers for the Eagle Squadron in England to help the RAF. His English squadron leader (Nicholas Farrell) is impressed with Rafe’s flying skill and enthusiasm. But his Spitfire is shot down in the Channel and he is presumed killed in action.

Image from Pearl Harbor (2001). Photo: Listal.com/IMDB.

Danny and Evelyn are posted to Pearl Harbor, a station described as ‘paradise’ and as far from the war as is possible. With Rafe dead, Danny takes up with Evelyn and they slowly fall in love. Then on 6 December 1941, Rafe reappears. He had got out of his Spitfire and had made it to occupied France where he could not get word out that he was alive. Danny and Rafe, once the closest of friends, now fight over Evelyn.

So far, so clichéd. All of this is intercut with the political story of events in Washington and Tokyo and the Japanese task force sailing for Pearl Harbor. When the Japanese surprise attack happens, digital effects take over. Unfortunately, the producer, Jerry Bruckheimer, and Michael Bay did not know when to stop. The film becomes like a video game. The most impressive sequences are those shot for real on sinking ships on a set in Mexico.

Image from Pearl Harbor (2001). Photo: Listal.com/IMDB.

Meanwhile, the storyline gets more and more improbable. There is chaos in the hospital as the terribly wounded are brought in by the truckload. Evelyn proves to be steady and reliable while everyone panics around her. And, surprise, surprise, it is Rafe and Danny who are the only two fighter pilots who succeed in getting airborne in P-40s to lay into the Japanese. The film ends with an interminable epilogue following the Doolittle Raid of April 1942 in which Rafe and Danny fly B-25s. And there is a resolution of sorts to the love triangle.

Why anyone would want to film a love story and set it around the events of Japan’s attack upon America is a mystery. But Pearl Harbor has its moments both before and after the raid, which is probably the silliest part of the film. It is interesting that the movie invents a newsreel cameraman who gets caught up in the attack and shoots some spectacular footage before being strafed by Japanese Zeros. What a shame that such a person did not exist.

Image from Pearl Harbor (2001). Photo: Listal.com/IMDB.
Image from Pearl Harbor (2001). Photo: Listal.com/IMDB.
Image from Pearl Harbor (2001). Photo: Listal.com/IMDB.

The lack of real footage of the raid has left filmmakers from 1942 onwards inventing what they think it must have been like. Some were far better at it than others. •

December 7th (1943) is available online. From Here to Eternity (1953) stars Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Montgomery Clift, Donna Reed, and Frank Sinatra. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) stars Martin Balsam, Jason Robards, and a host of Japanese actors. Pearl Harbor (2001) stars Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale, and Josh Hartnett.
Photos: Wikimedia Commons/Listal.com/IMDB.