Saturday, April 29, 2000
As 'Pearl Harbor' demonstrates,
movies color our perceptions of
history, race and prejudice
'Pearl Harbor' script has potential -- maybeBy Burl Burlingame
Scenes from recent 'Pearl Harbor' filming
THE 1942 movie "Air Force" was the first film to deal directly with the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor. In it, a flight of American B-17 bombers en route to the Philippines have the great bad luck to fly into the middle of the attack. This really happened.
In the movie, one of the B-17s is diverted to Maui, which is portrayed as looking like Skull Island from "King Kong." Plane lands, taxis, crew safe, and the Japanese folks running the lunch wagon at the end of the airstrip wave delightedly. Then they drop the false sides of the lunch wagon and roll out a giant machine gun, with which they mow down the unsuspecting Americans. Those double-crossin' sons of Nippon!
Needless to say, this didn't really happen -- or do we need to say it? To this day, there are people who believe the guns-in-the-lunch wagon yarn, and swear it actually happened. They saw it with their own eyes. On the movie screen.
As the great communications medium of the 20th century, movies have a responsibility to be more than the humble "entertainments" they claim to be, particularly when interpreting historic events. Movies heighten, telescope, strip away and give dramatic shape to reality, and the art in filmmaking is to make the ordinary vivid. That's why movies stick in your head. We had a president who regularly mixed up World War II movies with the reality of the war, and he was actually there.
Movies have the unique ability to immerse audiences in other places and times and events. They also have the ability to make audiences goggle at the hubris of filmmakers who view history as something to be manipulated for profit. Stalin monkeyed with history in order to make Stalinism seem inevitable; Hollywood monkeys with history in order to make money.
This is of particular interest as the Disney production of "Pearl Harbor" continues to shoot at the naval base of the same name. The producers, executives and director at first claimed they were sparing no expense in fidelity to the accuracy of the attack, organized a photo op atop the gravesite of more than a thousand American sailors and claimed to have interviewed hundreds of veterans, and are using the supposed thumbs-up from veterans to pre-market their product.
Last week, producer Jerry Bruckheimer waffled mightily on the subject of accuracy, attempting to shift the focus of the movie back to gee-whiz-it's-just-entertainment. Historians all have their own stories, and we're going with ours, says he.
Accuracy, however, isn't the point of movies. Appealing directly to the emotions is. The same goes for underlying prejudices. Movies track the public pulse, but they do not set it, and fairly reflect the zeitgeist of the time.
During wartime, popular culture demonizes the enemy. The icy Germans and lumbering Italians in movies didn't fare as poorly as the buck-toothed, near-sighted and sneaky Japanese, a stereotyped image so hurtful that it resonates today in our collective consciences. The point was to paint the enemy as sub-human. Every side did it, but Hollywood excelled at it.
When the war ended, Hollywood almost immediately began making films that portrayed Japanese as human beings, as in "Hey Pineapple!," although it took a while to shake the stereotype -- or to replace them with new ones, as in "Gung Ho."
Today sensitivity over stereotyping has become a new kind of social weapon, as overt as O.J.'s lawyers playing the "race card" to the apparently serious query by a local TV reporter to the "Pearl Harbor" filmmakers -- would they avoid the racial stereotyping of "Tora Tora Tora"? (It's hard to imagine a less racist movie than "Tora." It was a Japanese and American co-production, after all, with the Japanese portions shot by the Japanese and the American portions by the Americans. But this deliberate and forced equality was also an antiquated artifact of 1960s society, and deadly dull to today's in-the-gut filmmakers.)
Although racism didn't begin with World War II, the conflict turned it into an industry. The fallout makes an objective study of the Pearl Harbor attack a social minefield. There are all sorts of nutty beliefs about the attack that evaporate once you apply a logic meter, but no, they're still hanging in there.
A primary reason is that Pearl Harbor isn't just an ancient battle. It was the turning point in America's relationship with the world, a hinge of history that hasn't turned back; it is the most vivid memory in the lives of many Americans; the waters of the naval base are sacred ground, holding the remains of hundreds of Americans and an unknown number of Japanese. Pearl Harbor is viewed not with the dispassion of history, but with the fervor of religious belief.
And it's hard to shake nutty beliefs. For instance, take those who claim that the U.S. government knew all about the Japanese attack in advance -- that's really saying that the Japanese were incapable of succeeding on their own. Fact: The Japanese succeeded at Pearl Harbor without any help from the U.S. government. Reaction: Signage at the Arizona Memorial Visitors Center in which an American Navy admiral expressed admiration for Japanese tactical skills was removed by the Park Service after visitor complaints. It wasn't what people were programmed to believe.
The visitors' introductory film at the center had a snippet citing Army Gen. Walter Short's concern that saboteurs might lurk among Hawaii's Japanese population. The stock footage used, of plantation workers, gave some people the impression that Hawaii's Japanese were sneaky devils. Fact: Short really did worry about sabotage -- every commanding officer on a war-footing did -- and his planning reflected that fear. Reaction: The segment was exorcised digitally from the film.
Which leads us naturally to the oft-repeated caveat that no Japanese in Hawaii ever committed sabotage or espionage during the war. Is that really saying that Japanese Americans were physically, emotionally or intellectually incapable of such acts? Is it just as racist to whitewash an entire race as it is to tar one? Fact: Imperial Japanese aviators and submariners were given the addresses of "safe houses" in Hawaii should they have to escape, such as that of Dr. Yokichi Uyehara of Pearl City. Japanese-American taxi driver John Mikuma was the designated driver and in-house naval expert for visiting Japanese spies. Giichiro Uyeno of Kailua was killed in the summer of 1942, caught in the act of signalling Japanese submarines. And Japanese-American Yoshio Harada helped downed Imperial Navy aviator Shigenori Nishikaichi attempt to murder Harada's Hawaiian neighbors on Niihau. Rather than face the consequences, Harada killed himself when he was caught. Reaction: This is one piece of modern propaganda that is too self-serving to go away.
Don't make broad statements about race: they crumble with a single example.
One of the fascinating real-life heroes of the Pearl Harbor attack was Mess Attendant Doris "Dorie" Miller, who is portrayed in the "Pearl Harbor" film by charismatic actor Cuba Gooding Jr. There is no question of Miller's role in the attack, and a reading of "Pearl Harbor" shows that the film script treats Miller slightly, but with respect.
Born in Waco, Texas, Miller joined the Navy in 1939, and was regularly promoted. The Navy at the time was segregated, and career paths for "colored" personnel limited. Within those boundaries, however, Miller did well, and by the time of the Pearl Harbor attack was stationed on the battleship West Virginia. A large, imposing man, Miller was the ship's heavyweight boxing champion. Although his rank was mess attendant, his combat role was as part of an anti-aircraft gun position.
His station was wrecked by a Japanese torpedo, however, and Miller busied himself carrying injured, including the West Virginia's mortally wounded skipper. Spotting a mounted machine gun, Miller grabbed it and pulled the trigger, blazing away at enemy airplanes before being ordered to abandon the sinking ship.
Miller's exploits caught the attention of the black press -- "Our Dorie!" said one headline -- and during a spate of Pearl Harbor-related medal-giving in the spring of 1942, the black press complained bitterly that Miller was overlooked. Miller was quickly awarded the Navy Cross, one step down from the Medal of Honor, and sent on recruitment tours. He was killed aboard the carrier Liscombe Bay in 1943. A school and a ship are named after him.
Those are the facts about Miller. Read into them what you will; many have. Some view Miller's decoration as the height of arrogance; essentially, he was decorated for simply doing his duty -- as if the Navy's notion of a black sailor succeeding at his post was unusual and heroic -- and the Navy Cross was pinned on him simply for political purposes, as an recruiting tool for enlisting other black men.
If so, so what? Let's not pretend many medals aren't given for political expediency. Maybe it made up in a small way for the many brave black soldiers and sailors who were denied decorations in the past.
TAKE black Mess Attendants Anthony Hawkins and William Powell, killed at their stations at an anti-aircraft battery on the seaplane tender Curtiss during the Pearl Harbor attack. They also did their duty, and paid the ultimate price. But they weren't decorated. Dead heroes don't pay off in enlistments.
The facts of Miller's heroism became twisted enough through the years that during the 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, film critic Roger Ebert -- of all people! -- announced during a seminar that "Dorie Miller, a cook on the USS Arizona, was prevented from learning about weapons by white officers and grabbed a machine gun anyway, and shot down a bunch of Zeros, and the Navy refused to give him the Medal of Honor." Ebert wasn't making this up on the spot; he had read it in Chicago newspapers.
Although Miller is portrayed in the script for "Pearl Harbor" in suitably heroic fashion, the role is a cameo, a cigar-store Indian dressing up too few scenes. Gooding has personality to spare, and will make vivid sense of those scenes, and maybe the role will be expanded during editing.
The character is not germane to the plot, however, and feels added on, a demographic tool. Cutting Miller out of "Pearl Harbor" would make no difference in the story's dramatic arc, but then it would be an all-white story for all-white audiences.
There's a certain symbolism and symmetry here. The Navy and Walt Disney Productions have teamed up on the production, and both organizations are known for viewing history as something to be managed and exploited. During World War II the Navy viewed the real Miller as an expendable recruiting tool and today, the movie Miller is doing the same job.
To mangle the old phrase: those who view history are bound to resell it.
Pearl Harbor scriptBy Burl Burlingame
NO movie should be judged by its script. Many brilliant scripts have been ruined by so-so filmmakers. Many so-so scripts have been rescued by brilliant filmmakers. The success of a film is based on the clarity of the collective vision by the team that makes it, and sometimes not even then.
The makers of the new Disney movie "Pearl Harbor" have, however, been united in their excitement over the original script for the movie, credited to Randall Wallace. It was considered a hot-hot-hot property in Hollywood, and the primary reason Disney is plunking down so much dough to get it on the screen. After initially boasting about authenticity, the filmmakers last week retreated to the defensible position that "Pearl Harbor" is at its core a love story, and everything else is window dressing.
So we took a look at the current edition of the script to see what all the hullabaloo is about.
The story, as reported, does involve a pair of good ol' boys from Tennessee who fly off to war and wind up lovin' the same gal. Wallace has a positive talent for writing short, expository scenes that give each character, even minor ones, enough visual "business" to make them memorable. It's a love story that features things blowing up every couple of pages. They learned this lesson from "Titanic."
The general mood is jaunty, and the movie ought to be titled "The Hardy Boys Go to War." An example: The bubbas sing out "Land of the free!" "Home of the brave!" as they shoot down Zeros.
The writer has a thing for colorful language, for exposing male butts and urination scenes. The script is also full of dumb misspellings, such as "Hickham Field" and "Messerschmidts."
The attack on Pearl Harbor is the centerpiece, and it's bracketed by post-Battle of Britain aerial combat (the script assumes that the American Eagle Squadron pilots in the RAF actually had a separate unit) and the Doolittle Raid, which is played more like "The Bridges at Toko-Ri" than "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo."
It's full of accuracy howlers and anachronisms: Female nurses give butt injections to naked male recruits. Admiral Yamamoto can't wait to declare war on America. American planes feature "nose art" prior to the war. One pilot invents surfboard skegs. Beer is kept in coolers and Mai Tais are common. Intelligence officers are called "strategic analysts," and British mechanics curse at officers with impunity. Japanese pilots are portrayed as combat neophytes (most had actually been in combat over China for at least four years) and Zeros perform as dive-bombers, as well as strafe civilian cars for fun.
Dogfighting takes place, not just in the sky, but in-between Pearl Harbor's buildings. Military hospitals are stocked with antibiotics and preset for triage. Japanese airplanes attack the harbor at 250 mph (not only is that way too fast, it's about 100 mph faster than the rebuilt BT-13 trainers posing as Vals and Kates can fly). Guns are yanked out of the tails of Doolittle's planes and replaced with broomsticks (if the B-25B had had guns there in the first place, they wouldn't have needed broomsticks).
The author seems to have mistaken the precise, natty Gen. Jimmy Doolittle for blustery pottymouth Gen. George S. Patton. The portrayal of Doolittle here was the talk of a recent reunion of Doolittle Raid survivors, and they're steaming.
It's not a good sign when you laugh out loud while reading dialogue, but it's hard to resist when a character screams, "World War Two has just started!" The war actually didn't get that label until it was nearly over.
PERHAPS a filmmaker's idea of history is to quote from other films. In this one, for example, Japanese spies shoot pictures of Pearl Harbor, and then the scene cuts to a giant model set of the harbor, with guys pushing around toy battleships. Supposedly, this shows the wily Japanese planning the attack, and a well-known news picture of the period shows the same thing -- but it's actually a Japanese film crew preparing a shot for the 1942 propaganda film "Hawaii Sakusen."
Get out your logic meter: How did the Japanese know the precise location of American ships in the harbor months before they were actually parked there? Duh -- the Psychic Network?
The most amusing, however, is the Admiral Yamamoto character thinking out loud about how they've managed to "awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve." As near as anyone can tell, that line first appeared in 1969 in the movie "Tora Tora Tora" and nowhere else. Maybe Yamamoto didn't say it in real life, but he certainly said it in the movies, and hey, a good line is a good line. Call it an homage.
Burl Burlingame is a Star-Bulletin writer and
author of "Advance Force -- Pearl Harbor." He has written
extensively about history, the military and filmmaking.