Hello, everybody. Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your classic movie guys, here today to remind one and all — especially readers under 40 — that today marks the 71st anniversary of one of America’s catastrophic moments.
Here’s how then President Franklin Roosevelt memorably began his report of the event before Congress:
Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 — a date which will live in infamy — the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
He was referring, of course, to Pearl Harbor, a catastrophe on many levels. It was the first modern military assault on U.S. territory. Not only were some 2,400 lives were lost — mostly in the first 15 minutes of the sneak bombing attack on the Hawaii naval base — but the the event marked for the U.S. the official beginning of that far bigger bloodbath, World War II.
Hollywood has since been drawn to the subject, well, like bees to honey. So, to mark the occasion, we’ve decided to discuss a few movies relating to Pearl Harbor. We’ll proceed chronologically and, laying our cards on the table, proclaim our first title the very best movie treatment of Pearl Harbor.
— 1953’s From Here To Eternity, directed by Fred Zinnemann, is a powerful adaptation of the James Jones’ 1951 novel about Army soldiers stationed at Hawaiian navel base at the time of the Japanese attack. Despite the staggering 650 pages, the book translates beautifully to the screen, writes our Book2Movie expert, Larry Michie.
The essence of the novel was captured perfectly by director Zinnemann, and the famous scene of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in passionate embrace on the beach has long since been established as a Hollywood icon. The novel (and to some extent the movie) is brimming over with challenging and sometimes shocking depictions of army life just before the famous Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
Keep in mind, however, that many of the army’s enlisted men signed up during the Great Depression because there were few or no jobs available to working-class men. The army provided grub and enough pay to allow soldiers to get drunk now and then, writes Larry.
Sgt. Milt Warden (Lancaster in the movie) was a lifer, a highly efficient manager who kept his company humming. Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Montgomery Clift) was from impoverished coal mining country, namely Harlan County, Kentucky, and Maggio (Frank Sinatra) had a menial job at a Manhattan department store. By the way, in the book, Prewitt was raped at age twelve after he climbed into a boxcar in an attempt to flee poverty. (That’s NOT in the movie.)
Donna Reed’s character is straightforwardly described as a whore in the novel, not some sort of social hostess as her character is portrayed in the film. But for its time, the movie is highly realistic and even incorporated actual combat footage. No wonder From Here To Eternity won a grand total of eight Academy Awards.
— Director Raoul Walsh’s 1956 outing, The Revolt of Mamie Stover, stars Jane Russell as a prostitute forced to leave San Francisco at the beginning of World War II, and finds her fortune in Hawaii. Russell herself complained about the picture’s tame, watered-down script but to no avail. It was Fox’s picture, so I played Little Bo-Peep who had a swell time being a whore and who bought up half of Waikiki. Although we love Jane Russell, skip this one.
–In Otto Preminger’s 1965 drama, In Harm’s Way, John Wayne and Kirk Douglas portray Navy officers trying to redeem themselves after the Pearl Harbor fiasco. Patricia Neal is on hand to help out. No Preminger movie should be dismissed out of hand, so take a look.
— 1970’s Tora! Tora! Tora! is an absolute must see. The sweeping Panavision narrative from Twentieth Century Fox and director Richard Fleisher recreates the Pearl Harbor attack from both American and Japanese perspectives. Jason Robards, Joseph Cotten and E.G. Marshall head up an all-star cast, which also includes Japanese actors in key roles. Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck took personal interest in the project, and pulled out the stops. (The film was made expensively for its time.)
Finally, we should mention but not necessarily recommend two more recent titles: Steven Spielberg’s 1941, a comedy made in 1979 costarring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd about nervous Californians post Pearl Harbor; and 2001’s Pearl Harbor, director Michael Bey’s slam bang special effects-laden recreation of the actual attack. Lots of sound and fury in both.