December 7th (DVD)

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December 7th (DVD)

Who knew that it would take only 60 years for Pearl Harbor to transform itself from a military embarrassment and national tragedy into a suitable background for an action film? Previous depictions of the event certainly make it tough to predict this sea change. As Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor arrives in theaters, two of its predecessors do the same in video stores, in repackaged DVD editions that offer a chance to look at Pearl Harbor's cinematic past. At the behest of the U.S. military, John Ford and legendary cinematographer Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane) mounted the first re-creation of the event with December 7th, a film whose propagandistic goals overshadow whatever artistic flourishes its directors contribute. Despite its unmitigated boosterism of the U.S. war effort, Ford and Toland's impressive reenactment of the bombing was all most viewers saw of the film until a 1991 restoration effort reinstated a prologue, in which Uncle Sam (Walter Huston) consults with an otherworldly character known as Mr. C (short for Mr. Conscience, played by Harry Davenport), and an epilogue in which a Pearl Harbor ghost (Dana Andrews) debates the incident with the ghost of a WWI vet (Paul Hurst). Originally trimmed as damaging to morale, the excised material now looks painful for other reasons, with Davenport's characterization of Japanese-Americans as Hirohito-worshipping turncoats an especially ugly touch. It's not as ugly, however, as Frank Capra's Know Your Enemy: Japan, included among the December 7th DVD's bonus features, which amount to a veritable sourcebook of Pearl Harbor-related material. Opening with the telling line, "We shall never fully understand the Japanese mind," it proceeds through an appalling, deeply distorted characterization of Japanese culture and history that reveals far more about America's wartime psyche than about Japan. A profound shift had occurred by the 1970 arrival of Tora! Tora! Tora!, a U.S./Japanese co-production designed to capture the events of Pearl Harbor to the last detail, from both sides of the conflict. Fashioned by Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck and producer Elmo Williams as a companion piece to their 1962 D-Day chronicle The Longest Day, it similarly emphasizes historical veracity over all other qualities, almost to the point of tedium. (Although the mindset does eliminate the possibility of Japanese bombers buzzing early-rising Little Leaguers from the get-go.) Primary director Richard Fleischer displays a flair for action sequences throughout the attack itself, but a flat foot when depicting the events leading up to it, all of which seem to have been shot on sets left over from '60s TV dramas. Journeyman directors Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasaku have better luck on their side of the story. Subbing for Akira Kurosawa, who left the production after two weeks, they seem to realize, as Fleischer doesn't, the need for drama outside of scenes with explosions. The careful balancing of the two sides produces its own interesting effect, however, showing how war goes from possible to inevitable, whatever the wishes on either side. Had Tora! Tora! Tora! taken the notion a bit further, it might have created a portrait of escalating tension chilling enough to rival its carefully orchestrated climactic bombing raid.