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Friday, May 25, 2001

Fact vs. film in 'Pearl Harbor'

History Channel host sympathizes with Hollywood's burden to turn history into entertainment

While listening to a recent debate between two of his students, history professor Steve Gillon visibly flinched as one of them made his point and cited Oliver Stone's film "JFK" to back up a particular 'fact.'
   Historical accuracy in Hollywood often takes the back seat to a sunset kiss - and it's something Gillon loathes. But after having seen the new summer blockbuster "Pearl Harbor," which opens today, Gillon isn't worried about the public getting the wrong idea.
   Historical perspective
   Gillon is a History Channel historian when he's not busy as the dean of the honor's college at the University of Oklahoma. He's taught at both Yale and Oxford, and he now hosts the talk show "History Center" each Sunday at 9:30 a.m. on the History Channel. In honor of the release of "Pearl Harbor," Gillon is hosting "History vs. Hollywood" at 7 p.m. Sunday.
   As with any film based in historical context, there is a heated debate ringing throughout college campuses and news talk shows everywhere about the validity and truthfulness of "Pearl Harbor." Historian Donald Goldstein, author of six books on Pearl Harbor including "The Pearl Harbor Papers: Inside the Japanese Plans," is making the publicity circuit naysaying the film's historial accuracy. But Gillon is taking a more grounded approach.
   Honorable intentions
   "You can nit pick it to death, but it's a movie," said Gillon on the phone from New York City where he was taping "History vs. Hollywood." "It's a drama, and it's designed to tell a story. Overall, in the broad brushes, do (the filmmakers) deal responsibly with history? I think they do."
   Some of Gillon's fellow historians are letting their feathers get ruffled over trivial issues, he says.
   "Sure, occasionally they shoot the wrong kinds of guns, but I don't find that to be all that significant," said Gillon. "But on the larger issues, on the events leading up to Pearl Harbor and the attack itself, they did their job well. Of course they embellish things - it's not a documentary. I'm sympathetic to the challenges the filmmakers are presented with."
   Filmmakers are saddled with the task of representing the events of the Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese invasion accurately, making it entertaining to both a 70-year-old veteran and his 13-year-old grandchild, and explaining the social and historical context - because more than half of the audience knows more about actor Ben Affleck than Col. James Doolittle.
   "When you think that most Americans - especially young Americans - have such little knowledge of Pearl Harbor," said Gillon. "About 80 percent of people don't even know what the Doolittle Raid is."
   So explain it they must, and in the case at hand, the makers of "Pearl Harbor" did a fine job at sticking to the facts with only a few oversights and annoying blemishes, Gillon said.
   "I was looking at it primarily as a historical document," said Gillon. "I was impressed with the way they managed to be both entertaining and also informing."
   Gillon has already screened the film with a group of veterans, who mostly agreed with his analysis. Here's his overall take on the finer points of the film vs. history:
   Was it a conspiracy? "(The filmmakers) avoid the conspiracy theories about how America got involved in the war. It would have been very easy to do with Roosevelt what Oliver Stone did with JFK and make it into a conspiracy theory. Some military people, historians and journalists say that Roosevelt knew about the attack but withheld the information from his troops, but that can be refuted on every level."
   Was America really that bigheaded? "They deal with the events leading up to Pearl Harbor responsibly and I think very well, and they also show how American arrogance and racism led to the war. We were so convinced that Pearl Harbor was invincible that we missed all the clear signals that this was about to happen."
   Did the intense Naval support brighten one of the Navy's characters in the film? "They got a lot of cooperation from the Navy on this film, and they paint Admiral Kimmel in a much more favorable light than he actually was. A day before the attack, a reporter from the Christian Science Monitor asked him if he even thought an attack could possibly happen, and he said: 'They would never be so foolish as to attack Pearl Harbor.' I wonder if that was the price (the filmmakers) had to pay to have a $5 million premiere on an aircraft carrier in Hawaii?"
   Did the screenwriter stretch the characters too thin? "There was nobody who was at the Battle of Britain, at Pearl Harbor and who also participated in the Doolittle Raid. To say they're composite characters is stretching it... You have to accept that they're fictitious characters used to tie the story together."
   How accurately can computer-generated special effects portray the brutal casualties of war? "The computer-enhanced special effects don't convey the horror that took place, especially when you think about the brutality. ... People survived in the sunken USS Oklahoma for weeks and weeks and marked on the wall each day they survived under water. The last marking on the ship was New Years Eve. Special effects enhance the visual image, but they don't convey the power of war to people in an air-conditioned movie theater in comfortable seats with a super-sized coke in their hands."
   FRIDAY: "MSNBC Reports: Pearl Harbor - Attack on America" tells the story from the Japanese and American perspectives at 4 p.m. on MSNBC. "Cinema Secrets - Pearl Harbor" will share a few filmmaking secrets at 9 p.m. on AMC.
   SATURDAY: "Pearl Harbor Behind the Scenes" will include interviews with the actors at 1 p.m. on E! "Unsung Heros of Pearl Harbor" (shows you the locations of the fights and talks to survivors) at 7 p.m., "Tora, Tora Tora: The Real Story of Pearl Harbor" (talks about the results of the surprise attack) at 8 p.m., and "One Hour Over Tokyo" (talks to the surviving members of the Doolittle Raiders) at 10 p.m. on the History Channel. "Pearl Harbor: Two Hours That Changed the World Forever" includes rare footage and talks to both American and Japanese survivors at 9 p.m. on ABC.
   SUNDAY: "Pearl" is an old miniseries starring Angie Dickinson and Robert Wagner about three couples living near Pearl Harbor in 1941 at 7 a.m. on the History Channel. "They Were Expendable" features Ward Bond in the film about the PT boats of Pearl Harbor at 8:30 a.m. on TCM. "Pearl Harbor: A Journey to the Screen" includes interviews with the actors at 10:30 a.m. on BET. "Pearl Harbor: Battle in Paradise" shows you what the bombed areas look like today at 5 p.m. on the Travel Channel. "History vs. Hollywood" shows how the new film compares with historical facts at 7 p.m. on the History Channel. "Legacy of Attack" takes underwater cameras into the sunken USS Arizona at 7 p.m. on NBC. "Pearl Harbor: Day of Infamy, Day of Destiny" is a historical retrospective at 8 p.m. Sunday on Fox News Channel.
   MONDAY: "This Week in History" includes some behind the scenes segments about the film at 7 p.m. on the History Channel. "Dateline" will show how the special effects were created at 7 p.m. on NBC. "A Day of WWII" and "Behind the Scenes of Pearl Harbor" on AMC.
   Tuesday: "Great Blunders in History- Pearl Harbor" talks about how even though the invasion was devastating, the plan failed to achieve its overall desired effect at 10:30 a.m. on the History Channel.

Pop culture and media critic Ricardo Baca can be reached at 886-3688 or by e-mail at

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