Making History

Being a fanatical student of modern military history, I saw the feature film Pearl Harbor the weekend it was released.
November 1, 2001

Being a fanatical student of modern military history, I saw the feature film Pearl Harbor the weekend it was released.

To put it politely, it was an unmitigated piece of crap with no redeeming features. But, that’s just my opinion. Other people are certainly entitled to theirs.

I was all ears, therefore, when, at the World Congress of History Producers, Jack Green of the Naval Historical Centre – one of the advisors to this giant miscarriage of ten of my movie-going dollars – stood up during a session to address the panel. Considering the discussion was on ‘Fiction and the Facts’, I expected blood.

Instead, I discovered that, as in history, there are usually no clear villains in the movie business. Green and his fellow advisors were as much victims as the rest of us.

It was interesting to hear a firsthand account of what it was like to be an historian in the headlights of a Hollywood juggernaut – not even facts and history fare well in the face of big money and star power.

Your cook didn’t shoot down any of the Japanese fighters? No problem, he’ll do it on the big screen. Congress tells you a Naval officer was on duty and not playing golf (as has been the rumor)? Easy. Put him on a golf course expressing his concern about not being in his office. If a two-million dollar script says it happened, it damn well happened.

It was a cautionary tale for everyone in the room, most especially for historians who find themselves trying to make the past fit the large or small screen. History doesn’t fit well into two dimensions, nor does the thread of the past readily fit the weave of a narrative. It’s ‘inconvenient’, as the bbc’s Lawrence Rees put it. The little bumps and footnotes get glossed over for the sake of the familiar and saleable format.

Green wrapped his address with a caveat that was a poke in the ribs to all of us who left Pearl Harbor shaking our heads and grumbling. The Naval Centre’s website received an unprecedented number of hits after the film premiered and again after the events of September 11 (as the two attacks are now indelibly linked in the conscience of Western society).

Could it be that bad history is better than no history at all? Or is it that viewers are so hungry for knowledge that they’ll devour whatever is put in front of them?

Brendan Christie


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