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June 2024
1min read


The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor was such a shock to the American system that it took eight years for a film about it to reach the screen. For those not sated with the carnage of the epic Pearl Harbor , to be released this month, such earlier versions are worth looking into.

From Here to Eternity swept the 1953 Academy Awards and changed American filmmaking with its gritty, non-sentimental look at working-class characters and Army life. Frank Sinatra’s Maggio, Burt Lancaster’s Sergeant Warden, and Montgomery Clift’s Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt became American archetypes, as did Donna Reed (who, like Sinatra, won an Oscar) as the tough/vulnerable bar-girl. Nearly half a century after its release, the viewer still becomes so wrapped up in the characters’ lives that the attack on Pearl Harbor, though you have waited the whole movie for it, is entirely unexpected. To watch the film now without interruption is probably the closest one can come to understanding how Americans felt on December 7, 1941.

Unfortunately, to watch Tora! Tora! Tora! again is only to find how ambivalent Americans were about war in the middle of the Vietnam quagmire. The film was originally conceived as a dual vehicle for the action-film director Richard Fleischer and the Japanese master Akira Kurosawa, but the latter collapsed from exhaustion after three weeks with only minutes of unedited film shot. The Japanese segments were completed by two competent but uninspired fill-ins, and the result, according to The New Yorker ’s Pauline Kael, is a film “that thinks it’s being fair to the Japanese by having Japanese actors behave like slit-eyed Americans.” The actual attack is not only spectacular but fresh-looking and keeps close to the historical record. The problem is that the producer, Elmo Williams, eager to please the Japanese in 1970, had all references to Japanese aggression (and documented atrocities) in China cut from the script. And the film’s dialogue is wooden and cliché-ridden, particularly after From Here to Eternity . As one critic phrased it, “With lines like these, who needs bombs?”

There are a number of excellent documentaries on Pearl Harbor, but three stand out. Nightline: Town Meeting- Pearl Harbor Plus 50 was taped in 1991 and has Ted Koppel hosting a live discussion of historians, politicians, businessmen, and veterans from both countries. Pearl Harbor: Two Hours That Changed the World , from ABC News, has sensational footage previously seen only on Japanese television. Most intriguing is December 7th: The Pearl Harbor Story , a “docudrama” by John Ford and starring Walter Huston that was made in 1943 and then was sat on by the military, who thought the film suggested, of all things, that the Army and Navy were unprepared. An edited version was later released; it restored some of Ford’s original footage, but alas, the entire film has never been made available.

—Allen Barra

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