I went to see "Pearl Harbor" in spite of its bad reviews. It was a
piece of history I lived -- from a safe distance -- and I had to see how
it was portrayed by a bunch of people who weren't around when it
happened. I came away with the reaction I least expected: very little
feeling at all. I found the battle scenes gripping, the rest considerably
less. And I came home with a nagging sensation of irritation I couldn't
Now, I think I can. It grows from the pretentious hype being used to
promote the movie about the American loss of innocence that began like
the click of a light switch when Pearl Harbor was attacked.
Tom Brokaw skated around the same premise in "The Greatest
Generation," but he used real people to support his thesis. The movie
uses cardboard people and settings to symbolize our innocence, and none
hit very close to home for me. Maybe the guys I grew up playing poker
with would have spurned their lady love's offer to share her hotel room
on the night before they headed overseas, but I strongly doubt it. The
big band sound and summer frocks and a kind of gee-whiz approach to life
do not a generation make. We were a little more complicated than that.
Since we're not going to be around all that much longer to defend
ourselves, my generation is going to be judged disproportionately on the
basis of movies like "Pearl Harbor," which leads to two problems:
historical and social.
I'm not going to get into the historical accuracy of "Pearl Harbor"
here. That could lead to an endless and inconclusive debate. What does
interest me is the social context in which such stories are presented.
And, even more, the abstract question of whether or not movie makers are
obliged to present history accurately -- especially since the current
generation of nonreaders gets most of its history from movies and
I once watched a vituperative argument between Jane Fonda and Michael
Cimon over that question. It took place backstage at the Academy Awards
in a year when both of them made a Vietnam war movie. Cimon won Best
Picture for "The Deer Hunter" in which we were asked to believe that the
Vet Congo played Russian roulette with American prisoners. Fond won Best
Actress for "Coming Home," which took a hard look at American society
during the Vietnam War.
Fond was outraged over Cimon's highly fictional account of that war.
Cimon defended himself by saying he had every creative right to depart
from history in the service of drama as long as the big picture was
accurate. The argument has continued through many similar films since,
and I was ambivalent about it until they started mucking around with my
There has been an interesting evolution of films about World War II.
Unlike the Vietnam War -- where the early films ("Green Berets," "Deer
Hunter") had us saving the world from communism and the later films
("Apocalypse Now," "Platoon") were much tougher -- the perspective has
been steadily softer as we distance ourselves from World War II.
Preceding "Pearl Harbor" was "Saving Private Ryan," a highly
sentimentalized film in which we are asked to find it reasonable that an
entire platoon should be risked -- and several members killed -- to
return one soldier to his mother after his siblings had given their lives
in combat. Like "Pearl Harbor," this inner story was carried along by
spectacular battle scenes.
I would urge those who want to get their World War II history from
films to check out such early entries as "The Best Years of Our Lives,"
"From Here to Eternity" and "Catch-22" for starters. These movies aren't
about special effects. They're about people that I used to know. And
Or better still, if someone in your family was there, don't wait until
it is too late to get some living history. Most historical movies and
books are done after the people who lived those times are dead -- and
that will soon be true of World War II. Even if you get a fair amount of
fiction in these accounts, too -- our stories often get better as we grow
older -- at least the creators will have been there.
My generation will probably always suffer from the Andy Hardy
syndrome, which was Louis B. Maker's MGM fantasy of the real
state-of-the-art America he never lived, himself. Andy Hardy wouldn't
have taken that girl to bed before he went off to war, and we're stuck
with that image. But there really were soda fountains, console radios,
one-night stands of the finest band music we'll ever know, vaudeville and
I like the people I grew up with in those surroundings. I've kept in
touch -- in some instances close touch -- with many of them over the
years, and I weep as they die off. And not just because they remind me of
my own mortality, but rather because they remind me that we were one hell
of a generation -- if not exactly for the reasons we've been portrayed.
In a few weeks, my wife and I are going to France, and I will have my
first look at the Normandy beachhead and the white crosses that
consecrate that place. I will also search nearby for the grave of my best
boyhood friend, Ed die Reeves, who was shot down in northern France the
day before the Germans surrendered. We went flying together in Corpus
Christ, Texas just before he went overseas. He never would have been
mistaken for Andy Hardy, either.
* JOSEPH N. BELL is a resident of Santa Ana Heights. His column