Friday, December 7, 2012

Pearl Harbor movies and others - the best and the not so best

There have been numerous films and TV series that dealt all or in part with Pearl Harbor. Some are good and some are pretty marginal. Some deal with Pearl Harbor as part of a larger look at WWII; some deal with Pearl Harbor and the war immediately after; only two that I am aware of deal with the actual attack itself. There is also one that deals with the attack but the period leading up to it is actually about the fictional characters on Oahu at the time of the attack.

So here is my list of films that I will almost always watch – that doesn't mean they are all great (though some are) it just means they are my favorites and some I usually don't miss. The list of TV series and 'Others' follows.

From Here to Eternity
Fred Zinnermann’s masterpiece won Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Frank Sinatra), Best Supporting Actress (Donna Reed), and five additional awards. The film deals with the weeks leading up to the attack and centers on soldiers stationed at Schofield Barracks and the women with whom they are involved. Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster filmed a scene that, at the time was not a cliché – a searing romantic kiss on the beach as waves washed around them.

Based on the novel by James Jones, it focuses on Robert E. Lee Prewitt played by Montgomery Clift who falls in love with Donna Reed's character, a 'lady' at the New Congress Club (in the book it is clear she is a hooker but the film dances around that). Prewitt is a bugler (he played taps at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) and a former boxer. He killed a man in the ring and refuses to fight, which creates much of the tension in the film. As Lancaster's character says, “he was always a hard head.”

In the movie The Godfather, a young Italian singer comes to the Godfather asking a favor. He really wants a part in a movie that he is sure will revive his career. Later the producer of the movie is made 'an offer he can't refuse'. He wakes up to find the bloody head of his favorite horse in his bead. The singer gets the role. The story has been that this was in reality Sinatra and the movie was From Here to Eternity.

The cast is full of wonderful actors: Jack Warden, Ernest Borgnine, Claude Akins, Mickey Shaughnessy and in a wonderful sequence, Merle Travis 'Travis Picking' and singing, Reenlistment Blues.

I love this film. Along with Casablanca, I will watch it anywhere, anytime.

Tora Tora Tora
The film tells the story of the attack in almost documentary style from both the American and Japanese perspective. The battle sequences are incredibly real, and the performances quite good. Telling the story by moving from the Japanese fleet, to Oahu, to Washington DC, works very well. One gets caught up in the unfolding 'mystery' of what will happen, despite knowing what will happen. The ability to build suspense in that way is a real credit.

In Harms Way
This is another one that I will watch anywhere, anytime, though it certainly is not in the league of Casablanca or From Here to Eternity.

It centers on Naval Captain (eventually to be Admiral) Rockwell Torrey played by John Wayne (who would go on to single-handedly win WWII in numerous films). He is commanding a cruiser just arriving at Pearl Harbor as the attack begins. The rest of the film follows 'Rock' through the early months of the war, winding up with a major naval battle, that we are certain will turn the tide of the war.

Rock becomes romantically involved with an Army Nurse, played by Patricia Neal, who utters one of the worst lines imaginable but with such aplomb and dignity that she makes it work: “Will there be time for us, Rock, out there?”

Kirk Douglas plays Rock's second in command. He has an evil fire burning inside him that eventually comes out when he rapes a young nurse who is engaged to Rock's son. He makes up for it by going on a suicide mission to determine where the Japanese fleet is.

Whether it was intentional or not, I don't know, but the film begins with a sequence reminiscent of the beach scene in From Here to Eternity. where Douglas' character's wife leaves a dance and drunkenly ends up on the beach with a Marine officer (played by Wyatt Earp – Hugh O'Brien). They have ostensibly 'done it' there on the beach, probably kissing as the waves washed around them. The scene ends with them fleeing as the Japanese attack and they are killed.

Pearl Harbor
Michael Bay's blockbuster set immediately before, during and after the December 7, 1941 Japanese attack tells the story of two best friends and the woman they both love. Heavily criticized for its script and acting, the movie, nevertheless, features the best re-creation of the Pearl Harbor attack ever put on film.

There have been a couple of TV Mini-series as well.

Winds of War
Based on the epic novel by Herman Wouk, who wrote about WWII as well as anybody, Winds centers on a naval officer, 'Pug' Henry, played by Robert Mitchum, who is a confidant of Franklin Roosevelt and Naval Attache to the American embassy in Berlin. The story begins in 1939 prior to Hitler's invasion of Poland and end after the attack (it was followed by the sequel War and Remembrance).

The cast included Polly Bergen, John Houseman, David Dukes, Ali McGowan and Ralph Bellamy as Roosevelt (he had previously played the President in Sunrise at Campbell).

It was directed by Dan Curtis, famous for the original daytime vampire soap opera, Dark Shadows.

If it comes back on cable, I will watch it.

This was a less satisfying series. It starred Dennis Weaver, Angie Dickinson (with whom, I did a Made for TV movie – The Suicides Wife), Leslie Ann Warren and Robert Wagner. The battle scenes were terrific – they should have been, they were lifted from Tora Tora Tora, to save production costs.


December 7th, 1941
John Ford won an Academy Award for this short film, which was released as propaganda in 1943. Originally surpassing 80 minutes, it was edited down to some 30 odd minutes to cut out footage that presented the United States military as being poorly prepared for the attack. However, the full-length version was released in the early 1990s. Because it’s propaganda it’s considerably far from truth, but presents an interesting view nonetheless.

I Bombed Pearl Harbor
If you’re looking for the flip side, I Bombed Pearl Harbor, a Japanese film from 1961, tells the story of a young Japanese pilot who survives the attack on Pearl Harbor. Although he celebrates the victory, he later is confined after the battle of Midway. It’s an intriguing look at the attack from a different angle.

Remember Pearl Harbor
Released in 1942, this was the first fictional film based on the events at Pearl Harbor. While it’s not a blockbuster action flick, it presents a thought-provoking look at the reactions of Hawaiians after being bombed by the Japanese.

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