Posted by Susan Doll on December 7, 2009
When I was a little girl, my father taught me about Pearl Harbor Day. He was a World War II army veteran and had served in the Philippines and New Guinea. Like many vets of that generation, he did not talk much about his experiences, which I am sure were as horrific as they are in any war. However, on occasion, he would bring up something related to the war: For example, he loathed and despised General Douglas MacArthur for his “I have returned” moment when the general was recorded by dozens of news cameras marching onto the beach of Leyte Island in the Philippines. My Dad said that thousands of soldiers had been there hours before him and had cleared the way, making it safe for MacArthur to have his photo opportunity. The good general did not have the graciousness to acknowledge those soldiers, and my father thought MacArthur an ungrateful glory hound. He said that weeks later when his base showed the famous newsreel of MacArthur splashing through the water as he landed on Leyte Island, the audience of soldiers booed and threw things at the screen. I doubt if you will read about that one in the history books!!
MacArthur aside, my father was truly a patriotic man, though he never wore it on his sleeve or used patriotism to justify a political stance like we see so often today. After he explained Pearl Harbor to me, December 7th was generally acknowledged in our household with a “Hey, Bud, remember what happened on this day?” Currently, in the wake of 9/11, Pearl Harbor Day tends to be remembered only in comparison to the destruction of the Twin Towers eight years ago, and perhaps that is natural. After all, almost 70 years have passed since December 7, 1941, and contemporary hostilities in the Middle East have imprinted our culture with new fears and concerns. Still, I was happy to see that TCM is remembering Pearl Harbor today with Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series, beginning this morning and continuing throughout the afternoon. It reminded me of the tremendous role that the Hollywood industry played in the war effort. Hollywood was not only a ready source of information through newsreels and documentaries but a source of inspiration through narrative movies, bond drives, and USO tours. Hollywood’s massive participation in the war effort helped promote a sense of social and political unity in this country that I have yet to experience in my lifetime, and the way things are going, I don’t think I will. For this reason, I have a soft spot for this era of movie history.
If you have never seen any episodes of Why We Fight, and you are reading this on Monday, December 7, click onto TCM and watch them. There are seven episodes in the series, which were produced for the War Department between 1943 and 1945: “Prelude to War,” “The Nazis Strike,” “Divide and Conquer,” “The Battle of Britain,” “The Battle of China,” “The Battle of Russia,” and “War Comes to America.” Clear, historically sound, persuasive, and truly dramatic, the series did more than any other to answer the questions and explain the background necessary for the public to understand and justify the war, at least according to documentary historians Erik Barnouw and Richard Barsam. Capra was a consummate storyteller, which helped him shape information and historical background into dramatic linear stories. The series is notable for its emphasis on history, because Capra, producer Anatole Litvak, and cowriters Julius and Philip Epstein realized they needed to overcome the isolationist views that had dominated America in the 1930s. The pre-war reluctance to get involved in “Europe’s problems” was still part of the popular discourse, and the War Department found new soldiers confused and ignorant about the background leading up to the war. Grounding the films in a clear historical context educated soldiers about the countries involved in the war while countering any remaining isolationist notions. In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra claimed, “. . . it can be truly said that the Why We Fight films not only stated, but, in many instances, actually created and nailed down American and world pre-war policy.”
Capra also studied the best propaganda films by the Nazis, Italians, and Japanese in order to understand the most effective filmmaking techniques to use for Why We Fight. He had to obtain a special security clearance to see Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, which he found “blood-chilling” and powerful because of its use of editing to persuade and manipulate. He also studied the propaganda efforts of Britain’s Crown Film Unit, which featured the work of Humphrey Jennings. With London Can Take It (shown on TCM last Friday) and Fires Were Started, Jennings had perfected the structuring technique of placing ordinary people in extraordinary but stressful circumstances, which made an impression on Capra. When it was time to construct Why We Fight, Capra skillfully combined many types of film footage with narration by Walter Huston, sound effects, animated graphics, maps, and music to produce propaganda that was engaging, informative, and inspiring. If the content was straightforward and unsubtle, the form was sophisticated. I first saw Why We Fight in film school, and I remember “The Battle of Russia” as my favorite episode. The fifth in the series, “The Battle of Russia” made me realize I knew nothing substantial about that country’s long history and rich culture. In history classes both in high school and college, the text books and teachers were too busy demonizing Russia because of its adoption of communism to offer any other perspective. Watching a film from an era when the Soviet Union was an ally—not an enemy—taught me that the idea of history as some sort of objective truth is a fallacy. (See the clip below from this episode for quotes by U.S. military figures lauding the Russians and for an example of Capra’s brilliant juxtaposition of sound and images for maximum emotional effect.) That doesn’t mean that diverse, or even opposing, interpretations of history are invalid or worthless; but, presentations of history are filtered through the ideologies, issues, and preoccupations of the era that produces them. Some devalue Why We Fight because it was conceived as propaganda, but I understand the series’ value to American soldiers and civilians during the war, and I admire Capra, who used his talent and skills in the service of his county.
Even before America’s entry into the war, Hollywood promoted sympathy for the European Allies through narrative features like A Yank in the RAF, The Mortal Storm, and Confessions of a Nazi Spy. This angered isolationists in the U.S. government, and in the fall of 1941, a Senate committee subpoenaed several studio heads to discuss their obvious biases. The studios were represented by former presidential candidate Wendell Willkie, who defended them during the contentious hearings. Two months later, the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred, completely changing the relationship between the government and Hollywood. Studios quickly put into production several war films, while the War Department and the Office of War Information were more than happy to provide technical advice, serve as consultants, arrange for location shoots, and provide equipment.
The first film to dramatize American soldiers in combat was Wake Island, released in August 1942—about 10 months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Directed by John Farrow, Wake Island opens in November 1941 when the men stationed on the island were lax about their duties despite the spit-and-polish demeanor of their new commanding officer. Needless to say, their attitudes change after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Wake Island starred Brian Donlevy, Robert Preston, and Macdonald Carey with a supporting cast of soon-to-be familiar character actors. The film is an early example of the war drama’s dependence on a large cast of diverse archetypes from various ethnic groups in order to suggest the ideal of America as a melting pot that provides freedom for all peoples.
Other war dramas from early in the conflict also worked Pearl Harbor into the storyline, including Air Force, which came about as the result of a suggestion by General Hap Arnold. Directed by Howard Hawks for Warner Bros., Air Force confirmed the conventions and themes of the typical World War II drama. The film opens on December 6, 1941, when the B-17 bomber Mary Ann takes off from San Francisco bound for Hawaii. They arrive in time to see the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. They depart for Wake Island and then the Philippines, using teamwork, courage, and sacrifice to stay one step ahead of the devastation brought on by the Japanese attacks on American outposts in the South Pacific. Moving on to Australia, they spot a fleet of Japanese ships and lead a successful raid against the huge convoy. The soldiers of the Mary Ann are a diverse lot who exhibit distinct personalities and hail from various parts of the country. Each soldier has a specialty or skill that comes in handy during the course of the narrative, emphasizing the role of teamwork but also the idea that everyone has something to contribute to the cause. Of course some crew members don’t make it, but they are presented as heroes who sacrificed for the greater good. Diversity, teamwork, and sacrifice soon become the overt themes of the war drama. John Garfield, the only big-name star in the cast, played a scornful flight school washout who plans to leave the service as soon as his stint is up. But, Pearl Harbor and his experiences with his fellow crew members change his mind. His character of the cynic-turned-patriot quickly became a familiar archetype in the WWII drama.
Lesser-known than Wake Island or Air Force, Gung Ho: The Story of Carlson’s Makin Island Raiders was directed by Ray Enright and released in 1943. The story begins just seven weeks after Pearl Harbor when a group of volunteers from all walks of life form the new 2nd Marine Raider Battalion. Their purpose is to raid the South Pacific islands held by the Japanese. Their daunting first mission is to annihilate the large Japanese garrison on Makin Island. Randolph Scott stars as the Colonel in charge of the Raiders, and Robert Mitchum appears in an early role as a young soldier with the colorful name of Pig-Iron Matthews. Other war dramas from 1942-1943 that used Pearl Harbor as part of the action or to jumpstart the storyline include: Across the Pacific; Careful, Soft Shoulder; Let’s Get Tough (with the East End Kids taking on Japanese spies); and Submarine Raider.
The Hollywood war dramas that made use of Pearl Harbor in the storyline helped to re-cast the event for Americans. In these films, the attack was not just a crippling assault that destroyed many of America’s military vessels and aircraft and devastated its citizens but a call to battle against those countries that provoked us and threatened our ideals and values. Like Why We Fight, the films provided a reason for why we were fighting the war— Pearl Harbor— and illustrated how we were going to win it— through sacrifice, strength from diversity, and teamwork.
The attack on Pearl Harbor must have been nearly impossible for Americans to wrap their minds around and, having lived through 9/11, I can empathize. Hollywood’s repeated attempts to re-cast Pearl Harbor as a clarion call not only helped the war effort but also put the event in a perspective that was less shocking and painful to ponder. For me, watching these films now is like a window into the issues, attitudes, preoccupations, and fears of my parents’ generation, which is an experience as informative as any history book.
And, yes Dad, I remember what happened on this day.
I dedicate this to my Dad, Wayne S. Doll, his brothers who served in the military, and all the other veterans of World War II that MacArthur so ungraciously overlooked.
Barsam, Richard. Nonfiction Film: A Critical History. NYC: E.F. Dutton & Co., 1975.
Barnouw, Eric. Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film. London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1980.
Capra, Frank. The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography. NYC: Macmillan, 1971.
Doll, Susan and David Morrow. Florida on Film. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2007.
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