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History of U.S. Film Essay

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Updated: Mar 25th, 2019

Probably the most dramatic event in 20th century’s U.S. history was America’s entry into WW2. In its turn, this entry has been triggered by Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Therefore, it does not come as particular surprise why researching this event represents not only historical but also political, military and philosophical interest – after all, due to what happened on that date, America had lost a part of its ‘innocence’, as nation.1

This also explains why, throughout the course of 20th century, there has been a number of movies and documentaries produced, in which the attack on Pearl Harbor accounts for the main theme.

In this paper, we will compare and contrast how earlier mentioned historical event is being portrayed in Richard Fleischer and Akira Kurosawa’s 1970 movie “Tora! Tora! Tora!”, in Michael Bay’s 2001 movie “Pearl Harbor”, and in British 1998 documentary “Great Mysteries And Myths Of The Twentieth Century: The Mystery of Pearl Harbor”, narrated by Robert Powell.

What sets “Tora! Tora! Tora!” apart from “Pearl Harbor” is that movie’s initial titles claim the full historical authenticity of depicted events: “All of the events and characters depicted are true to historical fact” (00.24.00).

And, the watching of this movie largely supports the validity of such a claim, as directors had made a point in representing Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor as having been dialectically predetermined by the particulars of geopolitical situation in the world at that time.2

According to the movie, in 1941, the Japanese only had two options of how to deal with an acute shortage of natural resources, experienced by their country due to America’s trade embargo – they had either to pull out of China or to declare war on U.S., in desperate attempt to ensure the continuous existence of Japan as an Empire. There is a memorable scene in the movie, which depicts Japanese high-ranking politicians in the midst of deciding of how to deal with the situation: “America is against the war we are waging in China…

Now we are threatened with an embargo on raw materials we need… Either we improve relations with the U.S. and withdraw from China, or find another source of raw materials in Indo-China” (00.08.17). Reluctantly, Japanese politicians had chosen in favor of second option- hence, sealing their country’s eventual demise.

Such directors’ treatment of a theme of what prompted Japanese to declare war on America is being indeed consistent with the notion of historical authenticity. After all, most historians do agree with suggestion that Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was rather rationale-driven then irrationally malicious, which implies that the blame for the outbreak of Pacific War cannot be solely placed on Japan. 3

In “Pearl Harbor”, on another hand, Bay strived to represent the motivation behind Japan’s attack as such that has been fueled by Japanese people’s irrational hatred of President Roosevelt.

In the scene, where Japanese high-ranking naval officers discuss what should account for the best way to proceed with the attack, officer Oyama states: “Franklin Roosevelt. Born into great wealth. Fifteen years ago, he was stricken with polio. Now he cannot walk… Americans do not wish to know how weak their President is” (00.40.02).

The President Roosevelt himself, however, is being shown as some sort of a Saint, whose main priority in life has been providing free military and financial assistance to those who fought evil Nazis, at the expense of American taxpayers: “Churchill and Stalin are asking me what I’m asking you – how long is America going to pretend the world is not at war?..

What they (British and Soviets) really need are tanks, planes, bullets, bombs and men to fight” (00.33.11).

It is needless to mention, of course, that such movie’s interpretation of the role President Roosevelt played in creating objective preconditions for U.S. to be eventually plunged into WW2, quite contrary to what he initially promised to American voters, can be best referred to as historically inaccurate.

The real motivation behind Roosevelt’s warmongering was his realization of a simple fact that, unless American economy receives a powerful boost, as the result of a country having entered the WW2, it would only be the matter of short time before the sheer counter-productiveness of his essentially Socialist ‘New Deal’ policy becomes clear to Americans.4

The watching of “Great Mysteries and Myths of the Twentieth Century: The Mystery of Pearl Harbor” confirms the validity of our earlier suggestion that it would be quite inappropriate to idealize Roosevelt.

After all, as it appears from this documentary, President’s wife Eleanor never ceased exerting a strong political influence upon her husband, without even trying to keep its affiliation with American Communist Party in secret.

Therefore, there is nothing particularly odd about the fact that many historians used to refer to Eleanor Roosevelt as the most influential Communist spy that this country has ever known. This would also explain why Stalin used to treat Roosevelt as nothing less of his lowly puppet. 5

In 1940, American Naval Intelligence had deciphered Japanese diplomatic code (so-called code ‘Purple’), which meant that the content of all secret communications between Japan’s government and Japanese embassies around the world was becoming instantly known to Americans.

Initially, Roosevelt was included in the list of those governmental officials who had the access to this deciphered information. However, in 1941, General George Marshall (Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army) had banned Roosevelt from the list.

This was the reason why, after the end of WW2, Marshall was held accountable for Pacific Fleet’s unpreparedness, in the wake of Japanese attack. After all, it was due to his earlier mentioned order that, prior to December 7, 1941, Roosevelt was not fully aware of what was going on in the Pacific.

Nevertheless, there is another interesting scene in “Tora! Tora! Tora!”, which implies that Marshall’s decision, in this respect, might not have been quite as irrational as it is now being commonly assumed.

In that scene, Colonel Bratton reveals what prompted Marshall to decide in favor of withholding the most sensitive intelligence information from the President:

“The order stands. The President is off the ultra list… Security found a copy of an intercept in a wastebasket at the White House. Truth is, the brass don’t trust some men close to the President” (00.30.27). Apparently, just as it was pointed out in British documentary, there were a number of objective reasons for many socially prominent Americans at the time to distrust Roosevelt.

Given the fact that Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” is essentially a love-flick, spiced with action, it is quite explainable why it explores the controversy, surrounding the events that preceded Japanese attack, in perceptionaly feminine manner.

According to the movie, prior to December 7, 1941, the commanding staff of Pacific Fleet consisted of intellectually rigid morons, incapable of recognizing the signs of an impending attack. Nevertheless, among them, there was one nerdish-looking but very bright Captain Thurman, who was able to predict that Japanese would strike Pearl Harbor on December 7.

And, the reason why he was able to do it is that, unlike the rest of ‘male-chauvinistic’ officers, he knew how to remain in touch with his ‘feelings’: “(Thurman) We guess, it’s like playing chess in the dark…(Spruance) So, sir, you would have us mobilize the entire fleet, at the cost of millions of dollars, based on this spine-tingling feeling of yours? (Thurman) No, sir, my job is to interpret… making difficult decisions, is yours” (01.09.36).

And, of course, according to the movie, President Roosevelt was trying to do his best to prevent the Japanese attack by riding around in wheel-chair, by coming up with vague moralistic statements as to the overall evilness of Japanese and Germans, and by expressing his full support to British cause in the war.

And yet, as it was shown in British documentary, it was due to Roosevelt’s unwavering belief in Churchill’s ‘good nature’, that close to two thousands of American soldiers had lost their lives on December 7, 1941. According to the documentary, in 1939, British Intelligence had successfully cracked Japanese JN-25 naval code.

Therefore, even as early as in November of 1941, Churchill was fully aware of the precise date and place where Japanese were going to strike America: “Churchill knew about JN-25 just about everything. Yet, British were not sharing their knowledge of this code with Americans” (00.15.54).

As today’s historians are being well aware of, it is namely on the condition that all the phases of Japanese operation against Pearl Harbor would be kept in complete secrecy from Americans right to the very end, that Admiral Yamamoto agreed to lead the attack.

Therefore, had Yamamoto’s JN-25 deciphered orders to the Imperial Fleet from November 25 and December 2 been disclosed to Americans by Churchill, this would have allowed Pacific Fleet to whether ambush Japanese carriers, or to force them to turn back, because then, the Japanese would have been deprived of the element of surprise.

However, under no circumstances Churchill wanted to allow this to happen, because this would have delayed or even prevented America’s entry into WW2.

If this was to be the case, Churchill would have no option but to sign peace treaty with Germans, which in its turn, might have resulted in British Prime Minister being charged with ‘committing crimes against humanity’, on account of his exploits in Africa, during the course of Boer War, or on account of his other less then honorable doings.

In other words, in 1941, Churchill deliberately allowed the Japanese to attack America, as it has gotten him an ally in the war against Germany. After all, Brits have always been known for their talent in fighting their own wars with foreign-born men.

Just as it used to be the case with Indians, Malayans, Canadians, Australians, South-Africans, etc., in the eyes of Churchill, Americans were nothing but expendable ‘cannon meat’ – pure and simple.

Therefore, for anyone with even slight knowledge of history of WW2, Roosevelt’s enthusiasm in trying to plunge U.S. into the war on the side of Britain and on the side of Soviet ‘workers’ paradise’ (as seen in ‘Pearl Harbor’ movie) appears to be yet additional proof as to his naivety and consequentially his professional incompetence, to say the least.

Nevertheless, given the fact that during the time of his Presidency, rather than being accused of ‘naivety’, Roosevelt used to be getting accused of ‘scheming’, the idea that, just as it was the case with Churchill, Roosevelt knew the exact date and location where Japanese attack was going to take place, does not appear utterly improbable.

There is a scene in “Tora! Tora! Tora!” movie, where Lieutenant General Walter Short gets to read out the newly received telegram from The White House: “Japanese future action unpredictable. But hostile action possible at any moment.

If hostilities cannot be avoided the United States desires that Japan commit the first overt act” (00.56.19). The reason why Roosevelt’s administration ‘desired’ for Japanese to commit first overt act is simple – had Japan struck first, this would automatically untie President’s hands in his intention to set America on the path of war with Germany – in full accordance with Churchill’s ‘desire’.

In this respect, an unmistakable parallel could be drawn between how in 1941, Roosevelt succeed in gaining America the status of ‘aggression’s victim’ and how in 1939, Stalin succeeded in gaining USSR the status of a ‘neutral country’, even though him and Hitler had both attacked Poland, almost at the same time.

Stalin simply waited for a week, before attacking Poland from the East – this allowed him to present USSR as ‘liberator’; whereas, Hitler’s Germany will forever be branded as ‘aggressor’.6 Apparently, on the arena of international politics, there can be no ‘wrongdoers’ and ‘good-doers’, but only winners and losers. As popular saying goes – victors write the history.

Because “Tora! Tora! Tora!” and “Pearl Harbor” belong to the genre of action-movie, on one hand, and “Great Mysteries and Myths of the Twentieth Century: The Mystery of Pearl Harbor” belong to the genre of documentary, on another; it would prove conceptually fallacious comparing and contrasting all three films’ semantic contents.

After all, British documentary is essentially a narration, supplemented by episodes from WW2 newsreels. Nevertheless, the provided earlier analysis of how Bay and Fleischer/Kurosawa went about depicting Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 leaves very little doubt that, comparing to “Pearl Harbor”, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” is being much more historically accurate.

Partially, this can be explained by the fact that, by the time Fleischer and Kurosawa were filming “Tora! Tora! Tora!”, the hawks of political correctness were not in position of censoring Hollywood movies on enclosure of controversial themes and motifs.

At the same time, when compared with “Tora! Tora! Tora!”, Bay’s “Pearl Harbor” appears much more cinematically appealing, which comes as the result of its semantic simplicity, its emotional ‘sappiness’ and its richness in special effects.

In addition, when compared to what it is the case with “Tora! Tora! Tora!”, “Pearl Harbor” features much better performance, on the part of actors. Nevertheless, when compared to “Pearl Harbor” and ““Tora! Tora! Tora!”, the apparent advantage of Powell’s documentary is that its watching stimulates analytical working of viewers’ brain cells.

And, it is namely the people endowed with analytical mindset, who are being in position to lend qualitative views onto the actual significance of historical events.


Great Mysteries and Myths of the Twentieth Century: The Mystery of Pearl Harbor. Narrated by Robert Powell. 1998; Thames International.

Masaru, Ikei. “Examples of Mismanagement in U.S. Policy toward Japan before World War II” in Pearl Harbor Reexamined: Prologue to the Pacific War, ed. Hilary Conroy & Harry Wray, 47-51. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.

McNeal, Robert. “Roosevelt through Stalin’s Spectacles,” International Journal 18 (1962-63): 194-206.

Mueller, John. “Pearl Harbor: Military Inconvenience, Political Disaster.” International Security 16, no. 3 (1991-1992): 172-203.

Pearl Harbor. Directed by Michael Bay. 2001; Touchstone Pictures.

Slackman, Michael. Target – Pearl Harbor. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.

Steele, Richard. “The Great Debate: Roosevelt, the Media, and the Coming of the War, 1940-1941.” The Journal of American History 71, no. 1 (1984): 69-92.

Tora! Tora! Tora! Directed by Richard Fleischer and Akira Kurosawa. 1970; 20th Century Fox.

Uldricks, Teddy. “The Icebreaker Controversy: Did Stalin Plan to Attack Hitler?” Slavic Review 58, no. 3 (1999): 626-643.


1 John Mueller, “Pearl Harbor: Military Inconvenience, Political Disaster.” International Security 16, no. 3 (1991-1992), 172.

2 Michael Slackman, Target–Pearl Harbor (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990), 3.

3 Ikei Masaru, “Examples of Mismanagement in U.S. Policy toward Japan before World War II,” in Pearl Harbor Reexamined: Prologue to the Pacific War. Eds. Hilary Conroy & Harry Wray (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990), 47.

4 Richard W. Steele, “The Great Debate: Roosevelt, the Media, and the Coming of the War, 1940-1941.” The Journal of American History 71, no. 1 (1984), 70.

5 Robert H. McNeal, “Roosevelt through Stalin’s Spectacles.” International Journal 18 (1962-63), 203.

6 Teddy J. Uldricks, “The Icebreaker Controversy: Did Stalin Plan to Attack Hitler?” Slavic Review 58, no. 3, (1999), 628.

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