20th Century Fox's former studio head Darryl F. Zanuck had served in the second World War, and spent his senior years at 20th by the overseeing of large movies showcasing major battles of that war, his most prominent being The Longest Day, based on Cornelius Ryan's book documenting the Normandy Invasion. But, in 1966 plans were put in place to make an historically accurate film about the Pearl Harbor attack, based on Ladislas Farago's "The Broken Seal." Ambitious in its scope, the film would be made with both Japanese and American crews, and for a great deal of the pre-production the man in charge of the Japanese unit was director Akira Kurosawa (who did extensive work on the screenplay). Kurosawa agreed to the film, thinking that David Lean was making the American section, but when he discovered it was, instead, Richard Fleischer, the Japanese master bent some rules in order to allow himself to be "fired" from the film. He was replaced by two directors known to be as efficient and workmanlike at bringing films in on-time and under-budget as Fleischer. The intention was not to make great art, but to make an historically accurate film, devoid of trumped-up drama (From Here to Eternity had done that already) and stick to the main subject of the planning and execution of the attack.
The result, although accurate, is rather flat. Fleischer's American scenes seem drab and stale and, peopled with character actors like Jason Robards, E.G. Marshall, Joseph Cotten and Martin Balsam, lacking in star power.* The Japanese sequences, perhaps because they have less of an American film studio-feel, seem to have more verve and energy...and better performances. The movie seems to reflect the situation of the real life events: the Japanese have all the bright ideas, while the Americans have the lethargy associated with "a sleeping giant."** Still, the battle sequences and attack footage is extraordinarily well done, a combination of L.B. Abbott's and A.D. Flowers' model work and the Fox Studio's sometimes hair-raising practical effects crews and stuntmen.
I attended the premiere of Tora! Tora! Tora! with my family at a special showing at the old Paramount theater in Seattle. It was a special preview for the local chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors, of which my father, John Wilson, late of the U.S.S. Missouri, was a member. The only story my Father ever told of the war was the events of December 7th, when he was waiting on the dock of the U.S.S. Arizona to attend on-board church services with his friend, Howie Whims, who, for whatever reason, was late. Were it not for his buddy's tardiness, my Father would have been aboard the doomed Arizona at the time of the attack, and likely might have joined the ranks of the sailors who are still entombed there.***
It was an odd thing sitting in that audience with that audience. 29 years previously, they had witnessed the true horrific events of what was being fictionalized on screen. The mistakes made (by both sides) that made the devastation so complete was laid out for all to see. But, however good the effects and pyrotechnics, they couldn't recreate the carnage of that day: the deafening noise, the stench of burning oil that enveloped Pearl for weeks, the bodies, the desperation; the sight of good friends and comrades-in-arms caught in the gears of the attack and lost forever.****
The retired sailors sat stonily, watching the film—no doubt poor competition for the memories unreeling in their own heads and hearts and souls. There was a smattering of applause when a Japanese zero was shot down, but it was unenthusiastic, hardly celebratory. For them, it was a film about—and I say this hopefully—the worst day of their lives. However artfully done, however accurately portrayed, who would want to sit through that? As Sam Fuller succinctly put it in The Big Red One, "Surviving is the only glory in war."
I hope, on that day, they could appreciate their own glory.
As part of the marketing of the film, 20th Century Fox had artist Robert McCall do a series of designs for use in poster art (as he had with 2001: a Space Odyssey). The images are quite extraordinary.
** That's taken from the thing the movie is most famous for—Yamamoto's assessment of the attack ("I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve"). Even Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor used it. It's a good line, making the Imperial General seem both prescient and tragic. Unfortunately, it appears that, historically, Yamamoto never actually said it.
*** It's one of the reasons I have no patience with Michael Bay's post-Titanic disaster, Pearl Harbor: there is one shot, meticulously recreated, following the path of the most damaging bomb that struck the ship—one of those CGI-sailors scrambling for cover below could likely be my Father, and it irks me that Bay's sensibilities had more gung-ho enthusiasm for the bombs than for the victims.
**** Those sailors' names are etched in stone at the Pearl Harbor Memorial, which is constructed over the still capsized hulk of the Arizona, which still burbles oil to the surface to this day. But, there's another section, a more recent section, with fresher names cut into the rectangular portal that leads under the surface to the Arizona. It's for survivors of the attack, who after living through the war, living a full life with wives and families, still chose as their final resting place the ship in the Harbor where they lost so many friends. I never fully understood "survivor's guilt" until I saw that.