“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
Dir: Fred Zinnemann, USA, 1953. 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!
Dir: Richard Fleischer, Kinji Fukasaku, Toshio Masuda, USA/Japan, 1970. 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.