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Pearl Harbor: A Look at the Historical Accuracy Term Paper

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Updated: Sep 3rd, 2021


Indeed, it was a day in infamy. December 7, 1941 marked the day that Japanese forces struck what was thought to be the defining blow to the Pacific fleet. However, this was not that case as history has shown. Although some Hollywood films have sought to recapture the events of the Pear Harbor attacks, they have all too some degree, failed. Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001) is a gleaming example of the attempt at turning the astonishing military debacle that was Pearl Harbor into a stylized pseudo loved story. Although Bay follows the life of two pilots through the attack and beyond, he does not mention the build up of tensions between American and Japanese forces that ultimately incited Japan to attack. Bay’s fascination with the, then, Army’s Air Corps leads one to believe that the Japanese planned Pearl Harbor as an attack on the aerial and ground forces, not the awe inspiring naval fleet. Finally, the battle scenes give rise to the notion that Pearl Harbor was a significant handicap from which America narrowly escaped, but history proves otherwise.


Scholars have studied the events leading up to the Pearl Harbor attack in order to identify reasons for the Japanese bombardment of the Pacific fleet. However, Pearl Harbor did not feel it necessary to include such portions to its good war hero motif. The embargo implemented by the United States to halt trade relations within the Pacific region was the beginning of many more actions taken. (Suid, 38). Since China was seen as the ultimate power in the region, America decided to offer military support in order to spite the Japanese. (Boggs, 454). All along, the tensions are building although the United States remained neutral, figuratively, during the early portions of World War II. The Japanese, history explains, would not sit back for long.

In perhaps the single most seditious action leading to the Pearl Harbor bombing, America decided to expand the Pacific fleet and send naval vessels into Japanese waters. By sending the Navy into Japanese waters for various tasks, mostly were for intelligence gathering, the United States violated international law. (Suid, 42). This proves to be the most significant expunged piece of Bay’s Pearl Harbor. However, it makes perfect sense. Hollywood could not produce a successful war hero motif if the war is portrayed as anything but heroic. The omission of such information insures the audience will not question the history of Pearl Harbor and thus except whatever Bay was willing to put on screen as the actual events.

During moments in the movie, Bay catches images from the life of Doris Miller, played by Cuba Gooding Jr., the first African American to receive the Navy Cross. Mackie and Norton explain, “that once the battle sequence begins, Miller is shown shooting down two different Japanese fighter planes, which is completely false.” (240). The idea that Japanese fighter planes would be zooming in between the decks of ships is more than creating spectacle, it is ridiculous. The fighter planes of that era could not have pulled off such maneuvers considering the range of the ships and smoke in the air as well as the likelihood of being shot down by sailors manning the available weaponry. Miller shot at the planes and defended his ship admirably, but never shot down the fighter planes. He shot at the planes as they skimmed just above the water performing strafing runs. (Biache, 17).

Furthermore, Michael Bay creates an allure of the Air Force, then Army Air Corps, within the context of a naval attack. This concentration on two fighter pilots shooting down Japanese planes, seven to be exact, is more than a stretch considering that only twenty nine Japanese planes were shot down by the combined forces; air, land and sea. Pearl Harbor’s battle sequence spans roughly forty minutes in length, yet almost twenty five percent isolates the maneuvers of Captains Rafe McCawley, Ben Affleck, and Danny Walker, Josh Hartnett. This heroic portrayal is in contrast to the members and equipment assigned to air fields such as Hickam, Wheeler, and Bellows which were essentially demolished. These sustained losses, however, pale in comparison to the extent of damage to the Pacific fleet.

Moreover, Bay continues an inordinate fascination with the aerial aspect of the Pearl Harbor attack as shown in the following scenes leading to the Doolittle raids. The two pilots continue their missions in fighting the Japanese by volunteering as members of a covert task force headed by Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, Alec Baldwin. However, in actuality, none of the surviving pilots were stationed on the carrier, Hornet, much less apart of this raid. Again, the war hero motif took precedence over historical accounts of the military actions. Bay also emphasizes its importance to the war effort, although it was subsequently named the “Doo-Nothing raid for its immaterial impact on the Japanese”. (Smith, 48). Scholars have argued that this action was to provoke a sense of retribution in the American people following the Pearl Harbor attack, but nothing more.

Throughout the battle sequences, the audience witnesses what seems to be a disabling blow to American forces. Numerous historical sources point out that although Pearl Harbor was a significant political motivator to entering World War II, the detriment to the American war machine was quite insignificant. (Laforte and Marcello, 311). Only one battleship of the eight was laid to complete rest, and equipment from the USS Arizona was still recovered for later use. (Boggs, 460).The aircraft carriers, on the other hand, left the port prior to the attacks. (Rogers, 445). Therefore, the focal point of the Japanese was spared from any substantial losses and, as a result, the power of the United States in the Pacific was quickly restored. Historical naval battles, including Midway are prime examples of the successful restoration projects.

Overall, Pearl Harbor was not an accurate depiction of the historical events. Although, the film did not serve the purpose of propaganda, it was little more than a single battle sequence wrapped around a love story. Sixty years after that dreadful day, Michael Bay releases a movie which does little more then stretch, to say the least, the facts surrounding the other military components during the attack. Even though Bay might have wanted to focus on the other military components during the Pearl Harbor attack, he should have stuck with the historical facts of that day. Bay could have easily presented a background to the events surrounding the attack, so that the audience could be privy to a more complete story. The same could be said for those films makers who would choose to focus the Coast Guard’s role during the invasion of Normandy. The role should be told, but in the context of the entire battle.

Pearl Harbor was released only a few months prior to September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. In the months following the attacks, not much mention was made of Pearl Harbor as the attention shifted to the atrocious images and stories coming out of New York City. Since 2001, Pearl Harbor has made its claim to join many historical depictions of epic protagonists. Along with these other films, though, it remains nothing more than entertainment for those who truly want a history lesson. As such, its value becoming a classic is difficult to believe. The movie advertised itself as the truest depiction of those events ever told. Yet, the aforementioned inconsistencies are more than enough to prove that Pearl Harbor was not as advertised. Therefore, the audience was simply treated to an inflated tale of war heroes which did not perform the amazing feats shown on film.


Pearl Harbor, the event, was much more than a forty minute Hollywood project created by computer generated graphics. This was a day which seared the hearts of many; locking in the passion and determination that has set Americans apart from her competition. All that is left can be read in books or witnessed if visiting the watery graves of close to twelve hundred men. Pearl Harbor was said to have captured the essence of all of this. After foregoing the events leading to the attacks that prompted the Japanese to take action, continually disregarding critical points of detail involving the battle sequence and then cutting away to precipitate a love story, the movie can easily be seen as a failure in the historic portrayal of the event. Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor can only be described as D-Day, day of dishonor.

Works Cited

Biache, Andrew Jr., et al. “Pearl Harbor.” Naval History 18.6 (2004): 6-24.

Boggs, Carl. “Pearl Harbor: How Film Conquers History.” New Political Science 28.4 (2006): 451-66.

Mackie, Ardiss and Bonny Norton. “Revisiting Pearl Harbor: Resistance and Reel to Real Events in an English Language Classroom.” Canadian Journal of Education 29.1 (2006): 223-46.

Pearl Harbor. Dir. Michael Bay. Perf. Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Cuba Gooding Jr., Alec Baldwin. 2001. DVD. Touchstone, 2001.

Remembering Pearl Harbor: Eyewitness Accounts by U.S. Military Men and Women. Ed. Robert S. La Forte and Ronald E. Marcello. Wilmington: Scholatic Rescources, 1991.

Rogers, Cornwell B. “The Facts on Pearl Harbor.” Current History (pre-1986) 3.000017 (1943): 443-47.

Smith, Dale O. “Pearl Harbor: A Lesson in Air Power.” Air Power History 44.1 (1991): 46-54.

Suid, Lawrence. “Pearl Harbor: More or Less.” Air Power History 48.3 (2001): 38-44.

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