(Posted May 21, 2001)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- When director Michael Bay's special effects camera follows a plummeting bomb from a Japanese fighter plane straight down the smokestack of an American warship, the resulting explosion may also signal a bigger boom in World War II-related movies, says a historian at Juniata College.

"Many of these movies like 'Saving Private Ryan,' 'The Thin Red Line' and 'Pearl Harbor' are tapping in to the end of the last generation to fight in a monumental conflict." says David Hsiung, W. Newton and Hazel Long Professor of History at Juniata College. "It was a war in which the bad guys were really bad, and that makes inherently interesting material for a movie."

Hsiung, who teaches a course on 20th century wars, says the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor also has not been the main focus of many movies. Only "Tora! Tora! Tora!" made in 1970, depicted the attack in detail. "The Pearl Harbor attack revealed a lot about the character of America that we were able to come back from such a crippling blow," he says. "So there is drama in the story of the attack. I doubt a movie about a supply officer struggling to get a shipment of boots to a South Pacific island would have the same appeal."

Although scores of war movies have come out of Hollywood, only "From Here to Eternity" and "In Harms Way" showcased the attack, although in both movies the attack was a side attraction to the dramatic story. Film critics have theorized that the resounding Japanese victory at Pearl Harbor made the incident unlikely movie material, particularly in the two decades after the war.

Hsiung says the victory was undeniable -- 2,000 men were killed and the United States fleet was crippled -- but the Japanese attackers made several crucial errors. "They did not bomb the oil depots near the base or a nearby shipyard repair facility," he explains. "The attack turned out not to be a fatal blow, but a punch in the nose that stiffened our resolve.

"The intention of the Japanese was that the U.S. would be so wounded that it would withdraw from the Pacific, but instead it focused overwhelming popular support to use any means necessary to achieve unconditional surrender," he adds.
The popularity of the war effort in the Pacific and Europe still is used as a barometer for how the nation perceives war, Hsiung says.

While Hollywood is just coming back to World War II subjects, Hsiung points out that historians have consistently produced seminal works on the war, and on the Japanese role in the conflict in particular. "One of the assignments I give to students for my class on wars is to conduct an oral history, either with someone who fought in a war or someone who served on the home front," he says. "I thought many of the students would look toward Vietnam histories, but instead they sought out grandparents who had fought in World War II."

Hsiung says that he hopes "Pearl Harbor" addresses some of the historical issues surrounding the attack, but he realizes that movie studios have to sell tickets. "This story is classic good guys and bad guys, but I think the American public can handle complex issues," he says. "Nuance is OK, even in a big movie."

Contact April Feagley at feaglea@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3131 for more information.