Saturday, February 26, 2000
Tora! Tora! Tora!
Hollywood, not historians,By Burl Burlingame
provided most of what Americans
recall about the Pearl Harbor attack
and the war in the Pacific
THE first time I saw the movie"Tora! Tora! Tora!" I got yelled at.
It was a high-school date at the Waikiki theater with then-girlfriend Karen, who, despite being lovely and brilliant, didn't know squat about the attack on Pearl Harbor. I kept having to explain things to her. Finally, half-way through, the guy in front of us had had enough, and he turned and hissed, "Will you SHUT UP! You're going to give away the surprise!"
Since then, I've married a woman who knows her Kimmels from her Shorts. And I still try to keep up with details of the attack, one of those incredible events termed by Winston Churchill as a "hinge of history." Nothing was quite the same afterwards. Despite its effect on the American psyche, the Pearl Harbor attack -- as well as the Pacific War in general -- aren't afforded the respect and scholarship given the European conflict.
There is no Pacific conflict museum in Hawaii, and the only one on the mainland is in Texas. The
Arizona Memorial Visitors Center makes a valiant effort with extremely limited resources, but the Park Service wasn't even able to afford a full-time historian there until relatively recently. As a critical juncture in Hawaii and Pacific history, this is shameful, but then, we're about as far away from the Washington beltway as a state can get, and the relative importance of local history drops off accordingly. D.C. doesn't care, and neither do our own legislators.
This means that the popular impression of the Pearl Harbor attack is formed primarily from entertainment venues. Luckily, "Tora! Tora! Tora!" went out of its way to tell the engrossing story objectively, and as accurately as possible. It was, after all, written by Gordon Prange, whose encyclopedic history, "At Dawn We Slept," is the touchstone of Pearl Harbor historians.
Movie told both sidesThe movie is also an artifact of the political zeitgeist of the late '60s. Extreme care was taken to balance the Japanese and American sides, to the point of using separate directors and film crews, and editing the various pieces together as if Alfred Hitchcock were telling the tale. The audience knows more than the "characters" (even though they're based on real people) and each misstep creates a mood of almost unbearable suspense as events hurtle toward tragedy.
No one is blamed, and -- this was very '60s as well -- politicians' and military leaders' hidden agendas are viewed with suspicion.
The movie was so well lensed that it seems that every 20th-Century Fox World War II movie made since stole from the outtakes. And Jerry Goldsmith's score, combining dissonant symphonic elements, plaintive samisen melodies and industrial sounds such as aircraft starter engines and chains dragged across piano strings, is nothing short of brilliant, particularly compared to the much different score he composed for "Patton" at the same time.
Performances were generally spot-on, particularly Martin Balsam's turn as Adm. Husband Kimmel -- a subtle, rattled performance that was overlooked by the Academy Awards -- E.G. Marshall as a harried Col. Rufus Bratton and Wesley Addy as a troubled Lt. Cmdr. Alvin Kramer. Ironically, Jason Robards, who played Gen. Walter Short, reportedly had been present during the actual attack, a destroyer crewman on antisubmarine duty.
Prior to "Tora! Tora! Tora!" movies that showed the Pearl Harbor attack were jingoistic propaganda; afterwards, as in "Midway" and "Pearl," the attack was an excuse to indulge in Hollywood's fascination with American self-loathing.
Now there's another film in the works, for the moment called "Pearl Harbor" as it's being shot here over the next several months. Although it's apparently the story of a love triangle between a woman and two American aviators -- these parts are still being cast -- it's in line to become the second-most expensive film in history (so far) and most of the money will go for special effects.
It remains to be seen how much history the moviemakers will get right, but they already have a huge advantage over the "Tora! Tora! Tora!" filmmakers -- they can use computers to not only generate ships and planes, they can electronically "erase" post-1941 images from the screen. So long Pearl Ridge.
"Tora! Tora! Tora!" got a lot right, although naturally events and personalities were telescoped. But then the attack had occurred only a couple of decades before and was still fresh in the minds of veterans and military-history advisers. Pearl Harbor itself hadn't changed all that much.
The thing to remember about Pearl Harbor in 1941 was how new everything was. Something like 50 percent of the defense appropriations for the entire United States in 1940 was poured into new construction in Pearl Harbor. During the attack, most buildings still weren't painted, others were being built, vast tracts of land were piled with lumber and freshly poured concrete foundations.
Errors slipped throughEven though director Richard Fleischer's military advisers were generally knowledgable, some errors did occur in filming, or were the result of financial or storytelling compromises:
The submarine attack just prior to the aerial assault was given short shrift, and no PBY Catalina patrol aircraft was involved. We know now that the Imperial Navy's submarine force helped sink some of the ships on Battleship Row.It generally doesn't cost much more to get things correct than to get them wrong, and while the superbly realized "Tora! Tora! Tora!" went out of its way to achieve verisimilitude, it still has those annoying, picky errors that live on in the minds of rivet-counters everywhere.
American trainer aircraft were rebuilt to appear Japanese, with varying success. The "Kate" torpedo and high-altitude bombers look the best, the Mitsubishi A6M "Zeroes" the worst. Although the overall color is accurate, white circles have been painted around the red "meatball" hinomaru Japanese insignia, a terrible gaffe. The American fighter aircraft are P-40Es instead of the earlier P-40Bs and P-36s; the nose silhouette caused by different engines throws the whole shape of the aircraft off. Marguerite Gambo was flying a Meyers OTW in her aerial encounter with the attack force, not a Stearman trainer. And take a look at the windshields of the fighters in close-ups; there's no glass.
The Japanese stream through Kolekole Pass and attack at extremely low altitudes, so low that dive bombers can't do any diving. This perpetrates one of the myths of the attack, when in fact the Japanese assault came from many directions and at many altitudes. The planes that came over Kolekole were at 10,000 feet.
The dramatic scene with the B-17 bomber landing on one wheel never happened. It was created on the spot to take advantage of a real wheel-up landing that was luckily captured on film as it skidded to a stop on Ford Island.
Opana Point is depicted near Koko Head, the wrong end of the island.
Schofield Barracks is attacked in the film (and in "From Here to Eternity"). Never happened.
Color is an ongoing problem. The American PBY aircraft are painted a bright blue; the real color was closer to a medium blue-gray, and many were actually in an experimental camouflage of a dozen different colors. Olive-drab vehicles and aircraft are too light for new products (although OD is a notoriously difficult color to capture accurately on film). Navy ships are a light gray, when in fact most ships at Pearl Harbor in 1941 were in the Navy's Measure One pattern (dark charcoal gray, and medium gray above the funnel top) or Measure 11 (dark blue overall). Some even had fake waves painted on the bow, a scheme called Measure Five.
Still, wrong is wrong.
Another movie was made a few years later about the Battle of Britain, called "Eagles Over London." The filmmakers rounded up real Spitfires and Messerschmitts, but oops, painted the Messerschmitts as British airplanes and the Spitfires as Nazi airplanes. Back then the average kid in the street could connect Spitfires to Britain, and Messerschmitts to Germany, but not your average filmmaker, apparently.
Film has become the primary vehicle through which most people experience extraordinary events, from the sinking of the Titanic, to the rescue of Apollo 13, to the slow dread of Pickett's Charge that hot July day in 1863, to the cold horror of raking enfilade fire on a Normandy beach in 1944. Filmmakers owe it to those who have gone before to get it right.