Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Awakening a Sleeping Giant

I've made a life's study of history. It was my minor in college, and it's been a personal passion all my life.

Movies have been a passion of my life, too, and I always like it when the two converge. I like movies that are based on actual events — preferably significant ones — although I do enjoy learning about something I never knew about before. Just as long as I'm getting the straight dope. I don't mind fictional accounts, as long as the stories are true to the events. For example, I didn't really object to "Titanic," mainly because it didn't embellish the truth — even though it did tell a true story in the context of a fictional one. But the truth wasn't sacrificed.

Which is more than I can say about "Pearl Harbor," a success at the box office but a flop with the critics — in no small part because the fictional story set against the backdrop of the sneak attack took all the attention but failed to make the audience care about anyone in the movie — and it didn't contribute to a younger generation's understanding of what happened and why. Even though the audience knew — or should have known — what was going to happen.

No such problem with "Tora! Tora! Tora!" That account of Pearl Harbor, which premiered on this date in 1970, was absolutely committed to re–creating the attack down to the smallest detail.

The audience realized early on how woefully unprepared the Americans were for the attack. One of my favorite moments in the movie comes on that fateful day — Dec. 7, 1941 — when E.G. Marshall, playing Lt. Col. Bratton, comes looking for the chief of staff, only to be told by his incredulous aide that he wasn't in his office because "It's Sunday, sir."

I watched this movie again a couple of years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. At the time of those attacks, I heard them compared, over and over, to Pearl Harbor; I heard that so much it became a cliche. But after I watched "Tora! Tora! Tora!" again, I had a change of heart. There were differences between the events, of course, but there were also similarities. Both involved determined foes who regarded the United States as a deadly threat to their existence. And, in both cases, the United States was either ignorant of or guilty of ignoring the gathering storm.

A big difference, of course, was that the 9–11 attacks targeted largely civilian facilities — with the noteworthy exception of the Pentagon. At least the Americans who were attacked in Pearl Harbor had the means to defend themselves — and many of them tried to do so. But the complacency of the perception of a routine Sunday morning prevented the counterattack from being very effective.

The attack was harrowing. In fact, until I saw the re–creation of D–Day in "Saving Private Ryan," I thought it was the most graphic depiction of battle — one–sided though it was — that I had ever seen.

"I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve," said Sô Yamamura in the role of Admiral Yamamoto. It was the most prophetic line in both real life and the movie.

I know little of the Japanese actors in the movie, which really isn't surprising since the producers deliberately sought actors who were not stars. I could write volumes on the American actors, though — Marshall, Jason Robards, Joseph Cotten, James Whitmore, Martin Balsam. Perhaps they were not regarded as A list stars at the time, but I would have considered them stars. Until I watched the movie again after 9–11, I thought Henry Fonda was in it as well. But he wasn't. I must have been thinking of "Midway."

The cast was top notch.

But, really, what else would you expect from guys like that? They delivered — as they always did.

It was interesting that the movie did better at the box office in Japan than it did in the United States — which was probably why it took years for the producers to make back their $25 million investment.

"Tora! Tora! Tora!" was nominated for five Oscars and won one — Best Visual Effects.