Hollywood vs. History

By C.V. Glines, Contributing Editor
Air Line Pilot, April 2003, p. 30

For more than a year, we saw references to a Hollywood blockbuster movie by Disney that was to be the most expensive ever made. It was to be called Pearl Harbor and would depict with startling realism what happened in Hawaii on that infamous date of Dec. 7, 1941. What the public did not know was that the last fourth of the picture was to include the retaliatory Doolittle Raid on Japan that followed on April 18, 1942.

I obtained a copy of the original script and was appalled at the artistic license the screenwriter had exercised to stretch the truth of the heroic Doolittle mission into absurd proportions. As a student of that surprise retaliation (three books and a dozen articles), I wrote to Bruce Hendricks, president of Disney’s motion picture production, detailing my concerns. He immediately responded with an invitation to visit him at Burbank and discuss the inaccuracies I had identified, especially the totally false characterization of Gen. Jimmy Doolittle.

I accepted but with the stipulation that several survivors of the raid and a member of the Doolittle family would also be invited.

Hendricks, to his credit, agreed,; and some important changes were made as a result of the meeting. Over the next several weeks, a succession of revised scripts was written—they still contained fabricated scenes and dialogs that I commented adversely on in detail, but I did not know if my critiques were acted upon.

To my surprise, I was invited to watch some filming of scenes on the carrier Lexington, now a museum permanently docked in Corpus Christi, Tex.

I met the stars—Alec Baldwin (who played Doolittle), Ben Affleck, and Josh Hartnett—and talked with Michael Bay, the director, and Jerry Bruckheimer, the producer. With me were retired Lt. Col. Richard E. Cole, Doolittle’s copilot, and Col. Henry A. Potter, his navigator. We pointed out errors as they were being set up and filmed, but we learned that the director is king on a movie set and can make any changes he desires in the interest of what he perceives as having a dramatic effect on his audience. Bay, noted for his awesome special effects, such as in Armageddon, pointed out forcefully to us that he wasn’t directing a documentary; regardless of the errors we saw, the scenes would be shot as he wanted them.

A hundred extras were waiting around in World War II uniforms, ready for their calls; and the three stars acted or spoke their parts as required. The ship had been converted to look like the original USS Hornet, the ship that took the Doolittle Raiders within striking distance of Japan. Four civilian-owned B-25 medium bombers had been hoisted onto the deck to be used as centerpieces for most of the carrier scenes and then were to be flown off afterward.

I reminded Bay that 16 bombers flew on the Tokyo Raid and asked how he was going to film that many on the deck. He explained, "Don’t worry about it. After my special effects guys get through with their magic, you will see 16 bombers." Little did I realize what his special effects magicians were going to do with improbable scenes of the Pearl Harbor attack, the fake formation assault by Doolittle’s Raiders on Tokyo, and the absurd scenes when one of the stars in a B-25 strafes a group of enemy soldiers surrounding his buddy’s crashed bomber, and then crashes himself, is captured, and dies. None of this happened outside the movie.

The filming in Corpus Christi was completed when the four B-25s took off from the carrier. I had been so critical of the script and the scenes I saw being shot there that I thought that was the end of my days as a guest on a Disney set. To my surprise, however, I was invited to go to sea from San Diego on a more modern carrier, the USS Constellation, onto which four B-25s had been lifted for more filming. The four B-25s would take off as before, this time from a moving ship. Again, I witnessed the shooting of more scenes that were inaccurate dramatizations of what really happened. I discussed with Hendricks the differences between historical truth and what the writer described and the director filmed. By now, no more changes were going to be made in the interest of accuracy, as nearly $150 million had been spent, and no scenes would be reshot just because someone pointed out they were not historically correct.

I was invited to fly in one of the ancient B-25s off the carrier as Doolittle’s Raiders had done 59 years before. It was the first time I had flown in a B-25 since World War II.

Several months passed while Bay and his magicians worked diligently in their editing rooms and completed the film, which was shown to several test audiences in late April and early May. Unexpectedly, I was invited to the film’s grand premiere on board the carrier USS John C. Stennis at Pearl Harbor. A large amphitheater and stage had been set up on the ship to accommodate several thou-sand special guests. A B-25, a P-40, and a Navy fighter had been hoisted aboard for display. Fifty radio booths had been set up for reporters to broadcast the premier events to their respective states. A U.S. Navy band played patriotic and popular music. At dusk, the movie was preceded with music by a large orchestra and introductions of survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack and the Doolittle Raid, followed by the film’s stars.

The film lasted more than 3 hours. The audience was mesmerized by the spectacular special effects; but later reviews revealed that few critics were impressed with the implausible love story that had been imposed on the actuality of the two significant historic events. Many of the historical inaccuracies were still in the movie. What some premiere guests thought was more impressive than the movie itself was the half-hour fireworks display that followed. The post-premiere party below decks gave guests the opportunity to meet the stars and the Pearl Harbor and Doolittle Raid survivors.

I admit I enjoyed witnessing the making of a major movie where expense seemed to be no object but shall be forever saddened to have learned firsthand that Hollywood cares very little about historical truth in favor of providing entertainment and making profits.

In the case of the Doolittle Raid, the truth of that mission is much more exciting and covers the full range of human emotions. I believe that any audience would rather see the true story than special effects and an implausible, contrived love story that attempts to give credence to the false portrayal of historic events. Unfortunately, those who don’t know the facts, especially the younger generation, who are now so interested in World War II, will believe that what they see is what actually transpired.