It happened on a Sunday morning. The attack on Pearl Harbor lasted just two hours, but those have proven to be among the most pivotal hours in American history.
Pearl Harbor woke us up as a nation; it showed that America was no longer a fortress of peace and innocence. A generation was called upon to wage a massive world war on two different side of the globe.
In the early conceptual stages of the movie, I met with many survivors who were surprised by the falling bombs in peaceful Hawaii. As I listened to their stories and stared into their tears, I knew this was a movie that had to be told for America and the world. This was a very special generation, which was willing to place their country above themselves.
Choosing to make Pearl Harbor was a huge, life-changing decision as a director. There was a battle within me–I wondered if this epic attack could ever be re-created. Maybe there was a good reason why no one has attempted to make this movie in the thirty years since Tora Tora Tora.
Quick research showed me that there is one original flying Japanese Zero in the world and very few ships from that era. How could anyone be crazy enough to tackle this movie? Maybe I should just do that safe, small, character film, I thought. But I kept thinking of those tears on those old cheeks. The powerful images I got from the survivors kept swirling in my head. During a trip to Pearl Harbor, walking around Ford Island, where the brunt of the attack happened, and totally immersed in my director mode, I had quiet moment to myself where I realized that under my shoes were the Japanese strafing bullet holes in the cement. This was hollowed ground and I was lucky to even be here; it was a moment I had to seize–to power through the wars to get this movie to the screen.
As I got deeper and deeper into my research, I learned that historians have different views and theories about what happened at Pearl. The Pentagon, which worked closely with me on this movie, admitted that there was no real Navy or Army logs kept during this time period. And even the men and women who were actually in the attack have varying accounts of what happened. Everyone seemed to be an expert, but every story was different. The question became: Would I be able to satisfy every survivor, historian, and military buff? The answer was no.
My job as a director was to take the various stories and themes and, working very closely with the writer, Randall Wallace, give the audience the overall essence of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Randall created characters based on pieces of real people we met; these characters that we can fall in love with, and see through their eyes what it must have been like during this harrowing time.
I took two years out of my life to make this movie. But I knew from the beginning, when I first stared into the survivor’s tears, that my effort and the efforts of my amazing crew would pay off. I have a vivid memory of showing the crew around Ford Island during preproduction. We came upon a plaque directly across from the sunken Arizona, marking the spot where a torpedo hit nearly six decades ago. My crew stood in silence for three minutes at the sight of this small monument. It was a solemn moment for all of us, and I think it helped the crew appreciate the undertaking were about to begin.
I recently showed the film’s trailer to a seventy-five survivors; when the lights came on, I saw that many had tears in their eyes. One of them leaned over to me and whispered, “I’m so proud that someone did this films. My one wish is to be able to go back, but I don’t think I’ll be around that long because my heart isn’t so good.” I hope that man makes it, because this movie is dedicated to him, and to everyone who was at Pearl Harbor on that fateful Sunday morning.
Pearl Harbor is not just a place in Hawaii; it is an unforgettable landmark in history. There’s a timeless lesson in our story, a testament to the human spirit; that even after terrible calamity, people can pull together and rise up from the ashes. When all the survivors are gone, this film will be a tribute to their memories and to the values they stood for. Too often nowadays, we forget what it is like to believe in something greater than ourselves.
From the book “Pearl Harbor: The Movie and the Moment”