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Pearl Harbour Remembrance Day: How five films and books told the story of the attacks

Filmmakers and authors have been shaping the narrative of the 1941 attacks for decades

Clémence Michallon
New York
Friday 07 December 2018 15:38 GMT
Pearl Harbour (2001) - trailer

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Louise Thomas

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On 7 December, people in the US will remember the Pearl Harbour attacks that left 2,403 American people – including 68 civilians – dead.

It was on that day in 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service struck the Pearl Harbour US naval base in Hawaii, shocking the American public opinion and precipitating the US entry into World War II.

Over the past 77 years, works of fiction have told the story of the attacks from different perspectives, with varying degrees of accuracy.

The story of Pearl Harbour has been told in various ways, through the lens of a Hollywood romantic period war drama, through to an Oscar-winning documentary-turned-propaganda-flop by influential filmmaker John Ford.

Here are a selection of movies and films that have tackled the Pearl Harbour story, and how accurately they managed it:

Pearl Harbour

In 2001, American filmmaker Michael Bay delivered a divisive war drama starring Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale, and Alec Baldwin.

Its narrative focuses on a love triangle between childhood friends Rafe McCawley (Affleck) and Danny Walker (Hartnett), and nurse Evelyn Johnson (Beckinsale). The set-up has prompted Rotten Tomatoes to say Pearl Harbour “tries to be the Titanic of war movies” – meaning it attempts to give viewers an account of historical events through the lens of a romantic story.

But critics remained unconvinced by Bay’s effort, which was released to mainly negative reviews. The film was also criticised for its historical inaccuracies, with historian Lawrence Suid writing that it “fails to provide even a reasonable facsimile of history”.

Despite this lukewarm reception, Pearl Harbour was nominated for four Academy Awards and won the Best Sound Editing title – all while earning six nominations at the Golden Raspberry Awards, including Worst Picture.

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Ben Affleck plays Rafe McCawley in Michael Bay's 2001 film "Pearl Harbour".
Ben Affleck plays Rafe McCawley in Michael Bay's 2001 film "Pearl Harbour". (Buena Vista Pictures)

From Here to Eternity

Author James Jones, an Illinois native, served in the US Army during World War II. From Here to Eternity, his first published novel, was released in 1951 and won the National Book Award the following year.

Jones’s book, which has often been deemed one of the best American novels of the 20th century, paints a picture of army life in Pearl Harbour before the attacks.

It was turned into the 1953 Oscar-winning movie of the same name, starring Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, and Frank Sinatra. The film, which came out to rave reviews, was added in 2003 to the National Film Registry. The addition recognised its status as a “culturally, historically” and “aesthetically significant” work.

December 7th: The Movie

John Ford, a four-time winner of the Best Director Academy Award and Navy veteran, and cinematographer Gregg Toland, worked together on what was once described by the Los Angeles Times as “perhaps the greatest propaganda failure of World War II”.

What started as a documentary with a running time of more than 80 minutes was reduced to 32 minutes after it was shown to the Navy and deemed harmful to morale.

The trimmed-down version, which amounted to war propaganda, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject in 1944.

It is now available in full on Amazon Prime, where it is categorised as a “docudrama”.

In Harm’s Way

Director Otto Preminger delivered his black and white Pearl Harbour epic in 1965.

The film follows the lives of military personnel, as well as that of their loved ones, in the aftermath of the attacks, as the US becomes involved in World War II.

Starring John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, and Patricia Neal, the movie was nominated in the Best Cinematography, Black-and-White category during the 1965 Academy Awards ceremony. Neal won the Best Foreign Actress BAFTA Award for her role as Lieutenant Maggie Haines.

The movie was, however, reviewed negatively by The New York Times, which deemed it “a straight, cliché-crowded melodrama of naval action in the Pacific in World War II”.

Pearl Harbour: A novel of December 8th​

Republican politician Newt Gingrich is also the author of several alternate history novels. Pearl Harbor: A Novel of December 8th is part of a two-book series dedicated to the Pacific War.

The title references 8 December instead of 7 December – the date of the attack in the US – because, due to the time difference, the Pearl Harbour offensive began on different days in each of the two countries.

Pearl Harbour: A Novel of December 8th, sold as “a novel of valour about those who took part in this cataclysmic moment in world history”, was also poorly reviewed by The New York Times at the time of its release in 2007 for its “war on punctuation”.

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