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Movies About Pearl Harbor

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Promotional painting for the 1970 movie Tora! Tora! Tora! by artist Robert McCall via Airport Journals

Promotional painting for the 1970 movie Tora! Tora! Tora! by artist Robert McCall via Airport Journals

Sunday will mark the 73rd anniversary of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s attack on U.S. military installations on the Hawaiian island of Oahu on Dec. 7, 1941. The following is a brief list of movies and television series about or set around the attack on Pearl Harbor.

DECEMBER 7th (1943)

– Although awarded the Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject, John Ford’s “December 7th” is a dramatization of the attack on Pearl Harbor that contains several scenes of pure fiction. It is a tribute to Ford’s abilities that many of the film’s reenactments have often been confused for actual footage and used in other documentaries. The War Department aggressively cut almost an hour from the original release because of concerns that the film exposed the military’s lack of preparedness for the attack.

AIR FORCE (1943)

– With campy dialogue, wooden acting, cardboard sets and effects that aren’t very special, “Air Force” is notable as an example of the flag-waving propaganda films that were cranked out by Hollywood in the early years of the war. The story follows the crew of a B-17 bomber who has the bad luck of being scheduled to land in Hawaii just as the attack begins. The plane survives and the crew later gets redemption when they help lead an attack on the Japanese fleet.

FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953)

– Frank Sinatra, Donna Reed and director Fred Zinnemen all collected Oscars in this Best Picture winner that delves into life on a Hawaiian Army base during the final days of peace. The film is probably best remembered for the iconic scene of Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr rolling about on the beach in a lip lock as they are engulfed by waves.

I BOMBED PEARL HARBOR (1960)

– Originally released in Japan as “Hawaii-Midway Battle of the Sea and Sky: Storm in the Pacific Ocean”, the film was given the more sensational (and more succinct) title “I Bombed Pearl Harbor” for the U.S. market. A rare film presenting the Japanese point view of WWII, it portrays a Japanese aviator who experiences the euphoria of victory following the attack on Pearl Harbor only to lose his nationalistic fervor when Japan suffers a crushing defeat at the Battle of Midway.

IN HARM’S WAY (1965)

– Otto Preminger’s sprawling, multi-layered soap opera of Navy life at Pearl Harbor when the bombs drop features John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, a cast full of familiar faces, and lots of 1940s women with groovy 1960s hairdos. Wayne is relaxed, warm, charismatic – you’d never guess he was suffering from lung cancer at the time and was two months away from having his entire left lung removed. “In Harm’s Way” is a big, meaty, enjoyable Navy epic.

TORA! TORA! TORA! (1970)

– The Pearl Harbor attack is vividly recreated in this lavish, expensive extravaganza, a joint U.S.-Japanese production. Told, warts and all, from both sides’ points of view, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” is meticulous in its historical detail, and big, loud and eye-filling as it culminates in a truly memorable depiction of December 7, 1941. It earned a richly deserved Oscar for Best Special Effects. Between this blockbuster and “Patton,” 1970 turned out to be a banner year for war movies, which is ironic considering what was going on in Vietnam at the time.

PEARL (TV – 1978)

– The ABC miniseries starring Angie Dickinson and Robert Wagner tells the interweaving stories of several characters going about their lives in Hawaii while blissfully oblivious to the approaching Japanese fleet. If you enjoyed the combat sequences in “Tora! Tora! Tora!”, you can enjoy them again in this production = “Pearl” recycles many scenes from the 1970 film.

FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (TV – 1979)

– The miniseries “From Here to Eternity” delivers just what you would expect from a TV version of a big-screen epic -lower-wattage stars and cheaper production values. However, the TV version remains truer to the steamy James Jones novel and features Natalie Woods in perhaps one of the finest performances of her career. Several of the cast members such as Don Johnson and Kim Basinger would go on to have healthy careers throughout the ’80s and ’90s.

THE FINAL COUNTDOWN (1980)

– The plot of “The Final Countdown” seems as if it was conceived during a debate between two high school history students – what would happen if a nuclear aircraft carrier with all her modern supersonic firepower was sent back in time and had the opportunity to intercept Japanese forces on the eve of Pearl Harbor? Kirk Douglas and Martin Sheen star as the two men faced with the dilemma of choosing between letting events take their course or changing history. Produced with the cooperation of the U.S. Navy, “The Final Countdown” offers great documentary footage of the USS Nimitz with plenty of exciting flight-deck take-off and landing action featuring F-14s and other aircraft that would have kicked serious posterior in 1941.

THE WINDS OF WAR (TV – 1983)

– The TV production of Herman Wouk’s novel came at the peak of the epic big-budget miniseries era and covers the early years of the global conflict, culminating with America’s entry into the war following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Miscast as the adventurist Capt. Victor “Pug” Henry, the aging Robert Mitchum spends much of his screen time looking like he needs a nap. The series received monster ratings and spawned “War and Remembrance” in 1988, which continued the story through the Allied victory.

PEARL HARBOR (2001)

– Savaged by critics for its cliche-ridden script, maligned by historians for its copious inaccuracies, and ridiculed by the public for starring Ben Affleck, Michael Bay’s film still earned $450 million at the box office worldwide. For all its flaws, the attack scenes are spectacular. Oddly enough, a slightly edited version of the film that removed jingoistic scenes and placed more emphasis on the love story was a huge a hit in Japan.

  • Brendan Smith

    I was at Pearl Harbor when they filmed Michael Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” I lived at Barracks 55 on Ford Island. Right in front of Battleship Row. What a horrible, horrible movie that was.

    • muzzleloader

      I believe Tora! Tora! Tora! was the finest film made on the PH attack. It’s production values were incredible and ambitious. The Japanese film company actually built a portion of an aircraft carrier, the bow section and flight deck on the edge of Inland sea. The cinematography of sequence of the early morning launch of the Japanese strike group is stunning as are all the movies flight sequences. The American film company built scale models of battleships at Pearl harbor, and considering the film was shot long before CG, the battle scenes are very well done. Best of all the films’ historical accuracy is excellent.
      I got to see TTT on the big screen which added to the experience.
      Pearl Harbor 2001could have been spectacular, but it turned out to be a politically correct love story. Having a great hero like Jimmy Doolittle portrayed by a rabidly left fruitcake like Alec Baldwin was especially galling.

      • Brendan Smith

        Agreed. Tora! Tora! Tora! is the best. I do like In Harm’s Way for entertainment value, but that isn’t meant to be historically accurate, just entertaining and it’s not completely about Pearl Harbor either.

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  • http://www.kcharlesbadoian/ Ken Badoian

    In Harms Way, great opening but got kinda tacky…ship models were poor and the battle sequences were not well done. In Pearl Harbor great shots of Knox class frigates being blown up. The battleship turning over was good but the rest crap.
    MMCS(SW)(SS) USN Ret.

    • James Bowen

      I agree about “In Harm’s Way”. I really like John Wayne, and I liked it when I was younger, but it has not stood the test of time for me. It is too soap-operaish.

      In “Pearl Harbor”, weren’t they Spruance-class destroyers? Either way, an enormous gaffe.

      • http://www.kcharlesbadoian/ Ken Badoian

        You are correct…They were nested together but wasn’t a Knox class shown some where in the picture?

        • James Bowen

          There might have been one. I just remember the bombs hitting three Spruance-class destroyers and being shocked that they had deliberately done that.

          • muzzleloader

            I got a hoot when they show a distant head on view of the approaching Japanese strike force, and the aircraft carrier you see is clearly a Nimitz class CVN.

          • James Bowen

            I don’t remember that part, but I am not surprised.

  • James Bowen

    “Tora! Tora! Tora!” is an excellent movie and my favorite one about the attack on Pearl Harbor. It does not delve into melodrama and sticks to the historical facts so far as we understand them. I kind of think of “Midway” as a sequel to “Tora! Tora! Tora!” and it too is very good. Unfortunately, “Midway” did insert some fictional melodrama which detracted from the movie. Nonetheless, the way it presents the battle unfolding as well as the events leading up to the battle are historically accurate and presented in a style similar to that of “Tora! Tora! Tora!”

  • Terence Brown

    Winds of War – While Robert Mitchum was a decade too old chronologically for the role assigned, his performance exemplified almost exactly a particular captain of a ship I served on in the 1980s, which captain did achieve flag rank. I believe the hard living of a naval officer whose service encompassed both World Wars would result in an appearance that is a decade older than officers of similar rank and age today who have had the benefit of a culture of fitness that began around 1981. Just look at photos of those who held flag rank in 1944. The fact that the novel was written by an officer who served in the Pacific during the conflict also helps.

  • Chesapeakeguy

    I haven’t seen all these movies, but I’ve seen some of them. The ones made during the war are always interesting. While the movie “Air Force” is described above as having ‘campy’ dialogue, it is listed as a four (4) star movie on venues like Turner Classic Movies. “Air Force” was released in 1943, but it had as part of its plot local ‘residents’ of Japanese heritage attacking and destroying planes at the airfields in and around Pearl Harbor, which we all know (now) never happened. I agree with those on here bestowing the label of ‘best movie’ to “Tora, Tora, Tora”. Quite an accomplishment given that it was in the pre-digital age, and given the anti-war sentiments in this country because of Vietnam!