Historical Accuracy of Pearl Harbor Film

Modified: 14th Dec 2021
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December 7, 1941, marks the U.S. government's foray into World War II after a destructive, surprise attack by Japanese forces on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, an American naval base close to Honolulu, Hawaii.[1] The attack killed more than 2400 American civilians and soldiers and the shocking devastation prompted President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Congress to declare war on Japan the very next day. The 2001 Hollywood movie “Pearl Harbor” is set against the backdrop of this devastation as its characters maneuver through love, loss and heroism.

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The main characters of the story, Danny, Rafe and Evelyn, are all fictional, though the two reel-story pilots are loosely fashioned around real-life pilots and historical heroes Kenneth Taylor and George Welch[2]. The film is a historical war-romance, centered around childhood friends Danny and Rafe, two Army Air Corp pilots and navy nurse Evelyn. Rafe and Evelyn are romantically involved but this romance is cut short when he announces his intent to join the Eagle Squadron. Subsequently, he is shot down at the British channel and perceived to be dead, leaving behind Evelyn and Danny, who become close due to the shared sense of loss and mourning.

Rafe returns on December 6, the day before the Pearl Harbor attack, and feels betrayed, lurching the three main characters into a love triangle. The film then goes on to display the horrors of the attack by Japanese aircrafts after which Danny and Rafe are promoted to captaincy due to their display of heroism. They then head over to Japan under Major Doolittle with a crew of soldiers with the intention of bombing Tokyo as a form of retaliation for the Pearl Harbor attack. During the ensuing fight, Danny is shot down by Japanese patrols, once again leaving a grieving Evelyn to seek solace in her deceased lover’s friend.

“Pearl Harbor” has been heavily criticized by critics due to its numerous historical inaccuracies, some trivial, others really significant. Carl Boggs, in Pearl Harbor: How Films Conquers History, subjects the film’s lackluster portrayal of the Pearl Harbor attack to harsh criticism. “If the goal of Bruckheimer, Bay, and Wallace [the film creators] was to achieve the “utmost realism,” giving audiences a view of Pearl Harbor as never seen before, then the film was a complete disaster. It is riddled with distortions and inaccuracies, lacks historical mapping, dwells on peripheral stories and events at the expense of the main narrative, and presents visual images that are hardly compelling,” Boggs writes, attacking everything from the film’s visuals to its heavy reliance on parallel storylines that detract from the reality of war.

Boggs goes on to say that though Bay’s hunch to combine fiction with nonfiction is warranted from an artistic standpoint, a “filmmaker is obliged to adhere to at least minimum standards of authenticity if he wants the picture to be taken as anything more than one person's fantasy.” Creative liberty should not come at the expense of accuracy, especially when documenting such a fundamental turn in U.S. history. Boggs also takes issue with pilots and the airforce being the central focus of the film when in reality, the actual Pearl Harbor attack was anchored by the Japanese navy where aerial and ground forces played a limited role. In Boggs’ own words,

“Bay's selection of two army pilots as main protagonists seems bizarre and out of focus, much like dwelling on the role of the Soviet navy in a film depicting the battle of Stalingrad.”[3]

One of the most glaring oversights by the film’s producers is Rafe’s assignment to the American Eagle Squadron. Though the unit did exist where thousands of Americans volunteered to join the war to fight on the British side in the Royal Air Force before America’s official entry, it was illegal for U.S. soldiers to join foreign armed forces.[4] Rafe would have not been officially ordered to join the RAF, unlike the film’s portrayal, and doing so would have put him at risk of losing his American citizenship. Also, the RAF Eagle Squadrons consisted of nearly 7000 American volunteers whereas in the movie, Rafe is displayed to be the only American in the unit.

In conclusion, this major plot-pusher in the film that ushers the love triangle between the main protagonists, is not supported by the actual sequence of events in historical reality. Rafe and Danny’s military roles also shift during the course of the film. They are portrayed to be fighter pilots in the beginning as they take on the Japanese fleet at Pearl Harbor, but later transition into bomber fighters during Doolittle’s raid. In reality, fighter and bomber pilots are separate, non-interchangeable roles.

The film also features an inaccurate portrayal of the communication technology during the era, showing it to be far more advanced than it actually was in the 1940s. Pilots during that time communicated via short-range radios that did not permit ground transmittance, unlike the film’s portrayal. Furthermore, one scene shows a Japanese-American receiving a call from someone in Japan, even though telecommunication technology at that time did not allow for trans-pacific phone calls. [5]

A film review by Nicholas Evan Sarantakes published by the Society for Military History points out another discrepancy in the portrayal of President Roosevelt. Played by Jon Voight, a scene showed Roosevelt kick aside his wheelchair as a display of American pride. Sarantakes says that, “In addition to being condescending, this scene is just plain wrong. The real FDR went to great lengths to hide his affliction and never drew attention to it, except when visiting the wounded in hospitals.” [6]

Films like Pearl Harbor play an important role in shaping public sentiment about historical events. Though the film has been criticized for its failure to capture the segregation era accurately as it shows Evelyn, a white nurse, tending to a Black soldier, it is not surprising that those parts have been intentionally omitted. That portrayal would have conflicted with the film’s overarching theme of American bravery and pride.

It also includes various small errors - the Japanese never attacked a hospital like the film portrays but showing this aggression not only acts as a plot device, but also forwards the film’s patriotic theme. Nevertheless, widely accessible artforms, such as film, have the benefit of being easily accessible and understandable by the general public. Even if they’re not completely accurate, they can spark interest in viewers and prod them to do their own research. Though Boggs’ discussion of World War II in the context of filmmaking is enlightening and very thorough due to his comparisons between various other films that visualize the war, it is relatively inaccessible for a common person in a non-academic discipline.

The film, in this case, with its romantic melodrama, at least attempts to capture real people who lived through the attack - their lives, loves and emotions. In this manner, the film is more personal and relatable for the public. The mistakes and omissions also tell a story in themselves. By analyzing what the film left behind, we can understand the social and political mindset of the public the film caters to. The film just shows white women because mentioning Hawaiin women and women of color’s struggles, and that they did way more than just serve as nurses,[7] would detract from the all-white main characters and the underlying theme of white male heroism.

Bibliography

“Pearl Harbor.” History.com. A&E Television Networks, October 29, 2009. https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/pearl-harbor

Edwards, Jeff. “George Welch - One of the Few Pilots Who Fought Back During Pearl Harbor.” War History Online, January 21, 2018. 

https://www.warhistoryonline.com/instant-articles/george-welch-one-of-the-few-pilots-that-fought-back-during-pearl-harbor-x.html.

Boggs, Carl. “Pearl Harbor: How Film Conquers History.” New Political Science 28, no. 4 (2006): 451–66.

https://doi.org/10.1080/07393140601005246.

“Eagle Squadrons.” Royal Airforce Museum. Accessed February 20, 2020. https://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/research/online-exhibitions/americans-in-the-royal-air-force/eagle-squadrons.aspx.

Sarantakes, Nicholas Evan. “Review: Pearl Harbor.” The Society for Military History. Accessed February 20, 2020. https://www.smh-hq.org/gazette/pearlharbor.html.

Tures, John A. “How American Women Helped Win World War II in the Wake of Pearl Harbor.” Observer. Observer, December 7, 2017. https://observer.com/2017/12/how-american-women-helped-win-world-war-ii-in-the-wake-of-pearl-harbor/.


[1] “Pearl Harbor.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. October 29, 2009. https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/pearl-harbor.

[2] Jeff Edwards. “George Welch - One of the Few Pilots Who Fought Back During Pearl Harbor.” War History Online, January 21, 2018. https://www.warhistoryonline.com/instant-articles/george-welch-one-of-the-few-pilots-that-fought-back-during-pearl-harbor-x.html.

[3] Carl Boggs, “Pearl Harbor: How Film Conquers History,” New Political Science 28, no. 4 (2006): pp. 451-466

[4] “Eagle Squadrons.” Royal Airforce Museum. Accessed February 20, 2020. https://www.rafmuseum.org.uk/research/online-exhibitions/americans-in-the-royal-air-force/eagle-squadrons.aspx.

[5] Nicholas Evan Sarantakes, “Review: Pearl Harbor,” The Society for Military History, accessed February 20, 2020, https://www.smh-hq.org/gazette/pearlharbor.html)

[6] Nicholas Evan Sarantakes, “Review: Pearl Harbor,” The Society for Military History, accessed February 20, 2020, https://www.smh-hq.org/gazette/pearlharbor.html)

[7] John A. Tures, “How American Women Helped Win World War II in the Wake of Pearl Harbor,” Observer (Observer, December 7, 2017), https://observer.com/2017/12/how-american-women-helped-win-world-war-ii-in-the-wake-of-pearl-harbor/)

 

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