Touchstone Pictures has brought many films to the silver screen and produced multiple movies about historic events. In a mini celebration of history on film, here is the beginning of a four-part look at Disney films from Touchstone to Hollywood Pictures as they aim to tell history’s tale on the big screen. On the docket first is Michael Bay’s 2001 film Pearl Harbor.

The Movie

Starting off on a farm in Tennessee in 1923, we meet young Rafe McCawley and Danny Walker. As Rafe’s dad lands after crop-dusting local farms, Danny and Rafe climb in the shutdown plane, and pretend to be aviators. After accidently starting the plane and shutting it down before they cause any damage, the boys are excited and relieved that they survived their first flight.

Fast forward to 1940, Danny, played by Josh Hartnett, and Rafe, played by Ben Affleck, are Army pilots in a world of their own. Rafe is eager to fight in the war in Europe, but at this time America is not involved in the war. He has volunteered for Eagle Squadron which is an American unit with the British RAF.

Stationed in New York, Rafe meets up with his girlfriend Evelyn, a nurse and Naval Lieutenant, and together they bring their friends for a night of dancing and fun in New York City. It’s this night that Rafe tells Evelyn that he is shipping out for Britain tomorrow. They say their goodbyes and it is up to Danny to see Rafe off at the train station the next morning.

While on the train, Rafe sees Evelyn searching for him on the train platform, but not finding him. Rafe is excited and believes Evelyn truly loves him. Time speeds up from this point, Rafe flies countless missions with the RAF, and Evelyn and Danny and every other supporting character get transferred to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. Rafe eventually goes on a mission where he was shot down and presumed to be dead. Danny and Evelyn are forced to grieve the loss of Rafe. Through their grief, they find each other and start their own relationship.

With their love blossoming, Danny and Evelyn discover that Rafe is alive and in Pearl Harbor. He survived his plane crash and spent many months in occupied France where it wasn’t safe to get a message out. The reunion doesn’t end well as Rafe pieces the clues together quickly that Evelyn and Danny are a couple. A brutal fight at a local bar, and night to sleep off the booze, Danny and Rafe awaken to the Japanese attack.

The attack ends, the Pacific Fleet is destroyed, and Rafe and Danny are some of the few American pilots who have combat experience. They are recruited to join a special unit with Colonel Doolittle played by Alec Baldwin, and head for the mainland USA. Doolittle advises his volunteers that they are going to pilot B25 bombers off aircraft carriers and bomb Tokyo. The mission is designed to show Japan that America can hit the empire in their capital city. Led by Doolittle himself, the squadron takes off and successfully drops their ordnance on military targets in Tokyo.

Rafe and Danny make it to China crashing their bombers. Danny will not only safe Rafe once but twice before he is killed in a gun battle with Japanese troops.

On their return to the USA, Evelyn waits hoping that both come back alive, smiling at the sight of Rafe, and crushed upon seeing the coffin he is carrying with Danny’s jacket wrapped around it. The film ends with Rafe and Evelyn back on the family farm, with little Danny. His father buried on the plot of land, and Rafe taking his ‘son’ flying.

The Best

What I especially liked about this movie was the blending of multiple real stories throughout. Yes, the focus of the film was Rafe McCawley and Danny Walker and their love triangle with Evelyn Johnson. Layered in this lengthy film is the struggle that Admiral Husband Kimmel, played by Colm Feore, had with the demands being put on him to send more ships from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Kimmel often says aloud in a frustrated tone how could he fight a potential war in the Pacific if his fleet was being mothballed?

Doris Miller, played by Cuba Gooding Jr., is a messman on the U.S.S. West Virginia. During the attack on Pearl Harbor, Miller manned an anti-aircraft gun which he had no training for, shooting down Japanese planes, and tended to the wounded throughout the ship. Gooding Jr. doesn’t get a lot of screen time with his character, but every minute he is on screen from the boxing match to the attack and afterwards, viewers are captivated by the performance.

Baldwin’s Doolittle is a brash take no prisoners kind of solider. While Baldwin’s portrayal is a version of the real man, which could be rife with opportunities to overact, for the most part Baldwin is restrained. He makes the most of every scene, and easily explains why anyone would follow him on this dangerous mission.

Dan Aykroyd as Captain Thurman plays a composite character of real-life Naval Intelligence officers who spent a lot of time trying to crack the Japanese codes during World War II. This was a desperate job that relied on guess work, and Aykroyd is subdued in his role, but conveys the difficulty of the work with subtle actions.

The special effects for this movie are beyond comparison. Mixed with real practical effects of vintage planes and computer-generated effects, the carnage that is wrought on Pearl Harbor is unprecedented. Not only do we see the ferocity of the attack but the aftermath as well. The destruction of the ships, and the sailors who are in danger supersedes Titanic, because while we all marveled at the effects used in Titanic, Pearl Harbor has a dozen Titanic’s happening at once.

The Worst

Amidst the reality of this attack we have a corny love triangle. This is the number one complaint about the film when it was released and even to this day. There is a large population of people who do not like Ben Affleck, and Michael Bay. Being produced by Jerry Bruckheimer forms an image in most viewers minds that this is going to be another mindless action film from the people that gave us Armageddon and The Rock. The dialogue is corny, and the resolution to the love triangle seems a little convenient. The film currently has a 24% score on Rotten Tomatoes, and the three hours and three-minute length of the film no doubt left many spots that could derail the movie.

The scene where Japanese planes are shown attacking the hospital did not happen. Japanese pilots were under strict orders not to attack the hospital. Pearl Harbor veterans were appalled at that scene. Bay said he added the scene to make the attack seem more barbaric.

Fun Facts

  • Doris Miller, played by Cuba Gooding Jr., was the first African-American to win the Navy Cross.
  • Alec Baldwin, Josh Hartnett, and Ben Affleck, all had basic flight training before filming. The shots of the actors flying the bombers in the sky during the Doolittle Raiders scene, are the actors at the control of the planes.
  • Gary, Indiana was used as a stand in for the bombing scene of Tokyo.
  • The movie earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for using the most explosives in a film.
  • Most of the special effects in the film are practical effects that were planned months in advance. The rollover of the U.S.S. Oklahoma was a set that took four months to construct.
  • Affleck’s character Rafe McCawley is based on real life fighter pilot Joe Foss.
  • The movie premiered at Pearl Harbor on the deck of the aircraft carrier U.S.S. John C. Stennis.
  • Pearl Harbor won an Oscar for Best Sound Editing.
  • Michael Shannon and Jennifer Garner have supporting roles in the film.

See It/Skip It?

See It. The movie has been lambasted as having a contrived love story that mixes in bad writing while fetishizing the explosive destruction of the actual event. Too many critics complained that the film was simplistic about a complicated and important moment in American history.

After re-watching the film, I find it hard to believe that this Michael Bay is the same filmmaker that directed all those terrible Transformer movies. Pearl Harbor has longer shots, and a more thought out story that makes more sense than many films today. The carnage of the attack is fast and explosive, but it makes the viewer aware of how deadly this moment was.

Pearl Harbor probably suffered from a poor release date. May of 2001 was a different time in the world. This was a period of isolation in the US, and it seemed like the President – George W. Bush – at the time was more interested in domestic affairs then foreign policy. The isolation theme that pervaded American life prior to December 7, 1941 could be seen in the world during May of 2001. With the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Bush escalated American foreign policy with intervention into Afghanistan and eventually Iraq. Patriotism was at its peak a year after Pearl Harbor premiered. Had the film been released a year later, I think Pearl Harbor may have been a billion-dollar blockbuster with positive critical response.

For all the criticism the film has received, I admit it has its faults, but the comments about the contrived love story and explosive effects could easily be applied to Titanic. I think the reason for the hate is simply because this is a Michael Bay film. Bay himself said the love story between Rafe, Danny, and Evelyn was akin to what you would have seen in the films at the 1940’s. Life was brighter at the start of the film because America was not in the war. Everyone seemed impervious to world problems, hence the brighter colors.

Pearl Harbor is not a perfect film, but it certainly ranks on the same level with Titanic for its sweeping epic about people caught up in the historical moment.

Director: Michael Bay

Production Company: Touchstone Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer Films

Principal Cast:

  • Ben Affleck as Rafe McCawley
  • Josh Hartnett as Danny Walker
  • Kate Beckinsale as Evelyn Johnson
  • Alec Baldwin as Col. James Doolittle
  • Jon Voight as President Franklin Roosevelt
  • Cuba Gooding Jr. as Dorian Miller
  • Colm Feore as Admiral Husband Kimmel
  • Dan Aykroyd as Captain Thurman

         

Release Date: May 25, 2001

Budget: $140 million

Box Office Gross Domestic = $198,542,554

                      Worldwide = $449,220,945