July 03, 2020

The Pearl Harbor Rant

I recently decided to watch the movie Pearl Harbor. I wish I could blame alcohol for this decision, but unfortunately I don't drink. It was fairly painful. Major errors so far: why did you label the air base as being on Long Island when you are extremely obviously somewhere in California? Lots of use of an Iowa for battleship backgrounds, almost certainly Missouri. And in the background of many of those shots are what are extremely obvious Knox class frigates. In some cases, it's just the mack, in others, it's the whole ship. This is almost painful to watch. They don't look like ships of that era. Then there was a comment about "I don't understand how two whole carrier divisions can just disappear". The next shot? A bunch of CVNs with extremely obvious angled decks, and at least one Burke. I do not think you understand how this works. Spy camera shots of modern ships. Those ships are named for someone who is still an active-duty Admiral. And the flyover of a redressed Essex as a Japanese aircraft carrier, with planes taking off over the stern. Why? Oh, and the radar screen they show has a PPI. Not at that time.

The attack itself was a really annoying mix of fairly decent CGI and shots that obviously used modern ships. They're easy to tell apart. There were also bits obviously shot aboard Texas, which I can actually forgive a lot more easily. She looks right for that era. The infamous Exploding Spru-Cans, which is just impossible not to see. There's a bomb falling into a magazine on Arizona with shells that look too small and that are stored horizontally (which is wrong for USN main gun shells) and that share the space with powder (definitely not a thing that they did). Also, it comes to rest in the magazine, then goes off, which is very much not how AP bombs work. Shots on a modern bridge, with no conning tower. The USN didn't start to glass those in until 1944, and you're supposed to be on West Virginia. And what is Doire Miller doing on Broadway, anyway? He works in the mess, which is notably not inside the armored box. And you've blown up those Spru-cans now four times! I know they're anachronistic, but you're the one who chose to put them in the movie, Mr. Bay. Also, that's still Missouri and Knoxs. And I saw a Bofors, which wasn't in service yet. I love the lack of any concern for ships that might be hit by American AA fire. Good work, Dorie Miller.

There's also some shots that are very confusing. I think it's supposed to be Oklahoma rolling over, but the guns are way too close together, and the muzzles are weirdly coned. Also, the turret looks fake. But it's a really impressive thing to do physically. Except that ships don't roll that way. About 90% of the vessel is out of the water. What's holding it up, raw enthusiasm? Planes with mysteriously-disappearing torpedoes menacing an airfield. Also, strafing is way more effective than it should be.

Later, newsreel footage that is very obviously from later in the war, including one shot that is identifiable as a hit on a Type 12 frigate, a ship not designed until a decade later. (That shot is obviously not from later in the war. It's a weapons test from much later.) And then there's Hornet, with an angled deck and bridle catchers. Neither of these were things in 1942. At least they painted an 8 on the deck. And then there's a later external shot of what is very clearly a supercarrier with at least one Burke in escort. And why are the Doolittle Raiders doing a formation flyover of said supercarrier? That's a great way to waste fuel. To say nothing of actually bombing in formation at that low of altitude. They'd be at serious risk from their own bombs, to say nothing of the planes ahead of them. And voice radio reports from that raiders reaching Hawaii? No. Just no. Also, light AA does not produce flak bursts like that. Also, nobody is going to haul a body across China like that. You'd bury him, and hope to retrieve it after the war.

"Before the Doolittle Raid, America knew nothing but defeat. After it, nothing but victory. Japan realized she would lose, and began to pull back." Every part of that statement is wrong. The first battle of Wake Island would presumably count as a victory. And Savo Island and Kasserine Pass are definitely defeats. As for Japan pulling back, that happened exactly once by my recollection. We had to root them from their strongholds, one by one. Coral Sea and Midway, both fought to stop further Japanese expansion, were yet to come.

Yes, the contrived romantic drama was annoying, too, but it didn't bother me anywhere near as much as the whiplash between a nice historical shot and the next one containing a ship which wouldn't be built for 50 years. Still, the movie almost has a "so bad it's good" quality to it which is lacking from the other great recent naval movie, Midway.


  1. July 03, 2020ec429 said...

    "Before the Doolittle Raid, America knew nothing but defeat. After it, nothing but victory."

    Sounds like a rip-off of Churchill's quote about El Alamein. Which wasn't technically true either, but at least he couched it in "It may almost be said" to make clear he was being figurative.

    Congratulations on a truly excellent rant, and on surviving the whole movie without a fatal brain haemorrhage.

  2. July 03, 2020Blackshoe said...

    Pearl Harbor was made in an awkward time where CGI was technically available to create most of what they wanted, but wouldn't have looked very good and would have taken a lot of time and money. So they went with more practical fx but that meant sacrificing any pretense of historical authenticity (not that I think Bay cared about it that much anyway).

    Ironically, CG is now at a point where you could do it much more faithfully, it's just no one would.

  3. July 03, 2020Matt B said...

    Sounds pretty terrible, and why I haven't watched it.

    Be interested in your take on Midway, and if they did a better job in that movie.

  4. July 03, 2020bean said...

    I have to admit I watched it over 2 or 3 sessions, which helped a lot with the risk of hemorrhage. I've got a request to the library in for Midway, and will of course give a similar report on it.

  5. July 03, 2020Neal said...

    I could not find it via the search, bit didn't John Schilling have a review up a few months ago in one of the open threads of Midway? As I recall that led to a rather robust discussion and dissection of what sounded to be a rather painful viewing experience.

    Perhaps someone has the link.

  6. July 03, 2020bean said...

    He did, yes. I'm not expecting to like it any better than he did, which is why I'm getting it from the library instead of buying it.

  7. July 03, 2020John Schilling said...

    My Midway review was in the comments of OT39:


    Better CGI than Pearl Harbor, worse everything else. And no Kate Beckinsale (real or CGI) to distract us from everything else. As bad as "Pearl Harbor" was, this was worse.

  8. July 04, 2020Matt B said...

    Thanks John! That's what I was looking for. That review about sums up my feelings. What could have been a really good movie was ruined by bad decisions: in particular how the played the protagonist.

    I remain hopeful the Battle off Samar will someday be made into a great movie.

  9. July 04, 2020bean said...

    I am extremely baffled that nobody has made a movie of Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors. It's a well-known book, and a great story. But there's nobody interested.

  10. July 05, 2020Doctorpat said...

    I'm not sure that Hollywood can make a good war movie in 2020.

    I'm even more sure that a good WWII movie is off the table until political analogies look elsewhere. A WWI movie is more likely to be achievable without be highjacked into being a political campaign. US Civil war is of course right out. Napoleonic war might work (Master and Commander was some time ago, but even there they changed the "baddies" from being the hated Americans to being the French.)

    To be safe you want a conflict where nobody really identifies with any protagonist, and it would be difficult to even pretend such a link. 30 year war? 100 year war. Spain vs England? Some Roman conflict, especially against the North Western Europeans so that everyone is safely the same "race".

  11. July 05, 2020Matt B said...

    I didn't realize there was a book! Ordered! Looks like they made a documentary too in 2005, which is re-airing July 13 on the Military channel.

  12. July 05, 2020bean said...

    There are several books. Last Stand is the work that focuses most directly on Samar itself. I have a copy, and it's one of my most treasured books because it was signed by a survivor from the Hoel who was a friend. I wasn't able to get through it as a book, though. Writing style just didn't work for me. Too Stephen Ambrose-y. I don't care about where every member of the crew of the Johnson went to high school. Just get to the action. And a stop to subtle technical mistakes would be nice, too. (These aren't enough to seriously compromise it, just things like mistaking the design crew for an Iowa for the crew in October 44. If you're using Last Stand to get that kind of information, you need to reevaluate your life choices.)

    There are a number of books on the broader battle. My first choice would be, as usual, Morison's volume on the subject, called simply Leyte. The introduction to the recent USNI volume will have more recommendations. Evan Thomas's Sea of Thunder is probably more easily available, and from my long-ago read, I liked it. Thomas Culter's Leyte Gulf is reasonably well-regarded, although there are some errors and I really don't like Cutler's style. There are other studies, most of which I can't speak on.

  13. July 06, 2020Chuck said...

    About 90% of the vessel is out of the water. What’s holding it up, raw enthusiasm?

    Well obviously the ship is lighter because all the sailors jumped off.

  14. July 06, 2020Philistine said...

    Hornfischer is very good at telling the stories of individuals and small units. He's much less good at the technical side of things, and as for high command... His attempted hagiography of Spruance at Philippine Sea (in The Fleet at Flood Tide) was so overwrought that it actually pushed my opinion the opposite direction.

  15. July 22, 2020Paul Brinkley said...

    I’m not sure that Hollywood can make a good war movie in 2020.

    Would 1917 count? It barely got released in 2019, and a lot of people didn't get to see it until this year.

    I would probably enjoy even one-line reviews of the authenticity of a few other war movies I've seen or plan to see. I know The Hurt Locker is shot through with problems. Also, there's no navy in it, and maybe films with no naval component don't deserve discussion here, but it's your call.

    Flags of Our Fathers Das Boot Crimson Tide Dunkirk Master and Commander Stalingrad Zulu Stalag 17 (I hear it's fictional, but based on several real anecdotes)

  16. July 22, 2020Paul Brinkley said...

    (Sorry for the poor formatting above - hopefully you can pick out what I listed)

  17. July 22, 2020bean said...

    I enjoyed The Hurt Locker, despite all of the problems with it. Yes, there were sacrifices for the sake of the story, but they felt necessary instead of just because the director couldn't be bothered. (Now that I think about it, I should hunt down the essays I wrote during my American Military Experience class in college. They might provide some entertainment.)

    Saw Das Boot, but it was a long time ago. Loathed the book Flags of our Fathers when I read it back in grade school (should probably be the scale namer instead of Stephen E Ambrose), haven't seen the movie. Master and Commander is good, and pretty authentic. Haven't seen the others, either.

  18. July 23, 2020quanticle said...

    The problems I had with the Hurt Locker were with it as a movie, rather than with the way it portrayed the war. Simply put, despite all the action, nothing of substance happened in the movie. It was a bunch of random vignettes, without much in the way of an overarching plot to hold it together. There didn't seem to be much character growth either. Despite all the horrendous things he saw, the main character at the end of the movie seemed to be basically the same person he was at the beginning, and was even ready to sign up for another tour of duty.

    I remember I was mad that Hurt Locker beat out Avatar for Best Picture because, even though Avatar had numerous problems, there was definitely a strong narrative arc to that movie, and there was certainly character development (even though it was done in a somewhat hamfisted manner).

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