Disney’s interpretation of the “date which will live in infamy” is fact-based — but not necessarily factual.
In “Pearl Harbor,” the Dec. 7, 1941, bombing begins as the people of Honolulu are in the midst of homey, all-American activities: playing baseball, having picnics and hanging out their wash.
In real life, of course, the bombing occurred at 7:55 a.m. on a Sunday, when many Hawaiians were in bed.
Clearly, some liberties have been taken.
A Navy Art Museum rep says that director Michael Bay even wanted to redesign period uniforms, to make them more photogenic.
Like the makers of every historical film before them, Bay, “Harbor” producer Jerry Bruckheimer, exec producer Bruce Hendricks, scripter Randall Wallace and the studio had to deal with a dilemma: accuracy vs. drama.
So will the pic adhere to the truth, or will Dec. 7 get a Mickey Mouse treatment? And, ultimately, how much does historical accuracy count in a fictional film?
Bruckheimer says, “We tried to be as accurate as we could but this is just a movie. It’s not a history lesson. It’s a romance. A fiction. The real story would take nine hours to show.”
Daniel Martinez, National Park Service historian at the USS Arizona Memorial, says the screenplay had 50 errors. Martinez had discussions with Bruckheimer, Bay and Hendricks and gave them detailed documentation with review comments.
“They wanted to look at how many problems were in the script historically and then mitigate them to accommodate their vision,” he says.
But, Martinez says, it was “made clear this was not going to be a documentary, and would use the backdrop of Pearl Harbor to paint a drama.”
Many of the questions of accuracy are based on the script, since the movie was unavailable for preview. Some of the liberties taken in the script:
- Japan’s Admiral Yamamoto is shown with the task force that attacked Hawaii, announcing: “The rise and fall of our empire is at stake.” But at the time, Yamamoto really was thousands of miles away at Kure Naval Station in Japan.
- Intelligence Officer Capt. Thurman (Dan Aykroyd) uses the term “the free world,” which wasn’t used until the Cold War.
- In a White House powwow, Franklin D. Roosevelt (Jon Voight) resolves to strike back at Tokyo. When told the mission’s impossible, the polio-stricken president rises from his wheelchair to make a point — unlikely for a 60-ish president who could stand only with the help of leg braces.
“Historians have to understand that we are making a movie,” says Bay, busily at work on the pic’s final mix.
“We interviewed something like 125 survivors. We had many historians consult us. Our movie gives the essence of what happened during the attack — not the syllable. I just hope that the movie can communicate to young people how it happened and how amazing a generation they were.”
Jack Green, historical advisor for the Dept. of Defense, who also works for the Naval Historical Center at the Washington Navy Yard, spent more than five weeks on “Pearl Harbor” and offered copious script notes as well as advice on uniforms and all Navy and Army aspects of the pic.
“Michael Bay has a really strong and detailed vision,” Green says. “But in those cases where things didn’t fit his vision, he used dramatic license like most directors do.”
Some of the discrepancies were more sins of omission than commission.
For instance, Americans forget that on Dec. 7-8, Tokyo also initiated hostilities against Malaysia, Thailand, Shanghai, the Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, Guam, Wake Island and Midway — the most ambitious military campaign ever deployed in one day. “Pearl Harbor” mentions little about this.
And other inaccuracies seem to be a bit of a quibble: Cuba Gooding Jr. plays real-life character Dorie Miller, who was on the USS West Virginia.
In the pic’s trailer, Gooding seems to fire an anti-aircraft gun, though many historians agree that Miller fired a machine gun. And though in the film he is shown shooting down a Zero, there is no proof that he did.
Sometimes, however, the filmmakers were surprising sticklers for accuracy.
The word “Jap” is repeatedly used in the “Pearl Harbor” script. Though the term is today politically lamentable, it was frequently used in those days.
The filmmakers had to tread a careful line.
While the Japanese and their military are clearly the enemy, and depicted as untrustworthy, they are also treated with grudging respect in the script, which avoids the “inscrutable” stereotypes that cropped up in WWII-era films.
In addition, key roles are played by actors of Japanese background (not by actors of other Asian backgrounds, as has frequently been the case).
But the Hollywood film seems rooted in Haole-wood.
Watching trailers for “Pearl Harbor,” one might ask if there were any Hawaiians or other locals on Oahu Dec. 7, 1941. In a story set on their island, natives/locals are like Ralph Ellison’s invisible men.
In the trailer, the vast majority of the people depicted are Caucasians — even though many shots indicate activities happening off the military base, where locals should be plentiful. In the script, there’s not one significant Hawaiian-local character.
And, like most other Pearl Harbor films, this one concentrates on the military casualties and ignores the estimated 68 civilians who died and 35 who were wounded.
They were mostly victims of U.S. friendly fire, killed by those entrusted with protecting them. (At the Arizona Memorial visitor center, there is a plaque commemorating them near plaques that honor fallen sailors and soldiers.)
Aside from the National Park Service, Disney consulted with the Defense Dept. and veterans’ representatives.
Green says that one of the hardest parts of his job was dealing with some of the vets on the set. “Many feel that the event should have been portrayed exactly as it happened. But for them, it’s a two-edged sword. It’s rare in history that we have an event that affects the lives of so many Americans.”
Sometimes the filmmakers followed historians’ suggestions. Martinez states that the script used “a loose interpretation” of Commander James Doolittle. Disney subsequently altered the script, and Alec Baldwin met with the Doolittle Raiders and toned down his portrayal of Doolittle.
“When I talked to the Doolittle family about changing little things, I asked the family’s opinion and approval and they gave it to me. That’s the way it was,” says Bay.
Despite some initial misgivings, Martinez has warmed to the new film. Trailers for the film “started to grab me. I hadn’t expected that. I’ve changed my opinion on ‘Pearl Harbor’ and applaud its dramatic interpretation,” the historian confessed a month before seeing it.
Adds Green: “Movies are entertainment. They are not history books. You have to compromise history with drama. You have to evaluate whether they are good compromises or bad ones. In the case of ‘Pearl Harbor,’ some I didn’t like, some I did. But it wasn’t my movie. It was their movie.”
Ed Rampell co-authored “Pearl Harbor in the Movies” from Mutual Publishing of Honolulu.
(Charles Lyons contributed to this story.)