Pearls of Wisdom
In search of the plane truth in Disney's war epic.
The critics have spoken. (”Bore-a, Bore-a, Bore-a,” thumped The Washington Post.) But so have the first waves of audiences, ringing up a huge $75.2 million box office over Memorial Day weekend. Now history will be the judge of Disney’s three-hour, $140 million war saga, ”Pearl Harbor.”
Coming on the heels of a new wave of books, videos, and TV news specials marking the upcoming 60th anniversary of the Dec. 7 attack, the movie has sent a collective shiver down the backs of historical purists everywhere. Even Daniel Martinez, park historian at Hawaii’s USS Arizona Memorial and a Pearl script consultant, concedes: ”They’re using history as wallpaper.” (Though Martinez adds that director Michael Bay’s depiction of the 1941 event is generally accurate.)
”This wasn’t The History Channel,” says star Ben Affleck in ”Pearl”’s defense. ”There’s a lot of interesting stuff that, if the movie turns you on to it, you can follow up on.” Adds Bay: ”It’s about getting the essence of what it felt like.” For those who want to separate fact from fiction, EW consulted a few experts. We award medals of honor, with a maximum of five for absolute historical verisimilitude.
REEL STORY Flyboy Affleck volunteers for the Eagle Squadron, a British unit created for American pilots before the U.S. entered WWII. REALITY CHECK The 244-member squadron did exist — but Affleck’s Army Air Corps pilot couldn’t have joined without surrendering his commission. ”For an American officer to fight with the British would be a violation of neutrality,” says Jack A. Green, a curator at the Naval Historical Center — and a ”Pearl” script adviser who lost this battle. [2 1/2 medals]
REEL STORY Not only is Affleck’s Rafe a nimble aviator, but he’s skilled in the ancient art of origami as well. REALITY CHECK The practice of folded-paper sculpture was discovered by occupation troops in Japan after the war. ”Prior to the war, Americans didn’t really understand Japanese culture,” Green says. ”And chances are Rafe would not be interested in origami. He’s a fighter pilot; they’re macho guys.” [1 1/2 medals]
REEL STORY Only two U.S. airmen shot down Japanese planes during the attack. REALITY CHECK While other flyers got aloft, only Lieutenants Kenneth Taylor and George Welch (loose models for Affleck’s and Josh Hartnett’s characters) were credited with hits. They felled a total of six Japanese planes. ”But [in the film] it looks like 20,” grouses ”At Dawn We Slept” coauthor Donald Goldstein. ”And then they go give blood!” [4 1/2 medals]
REEL STORY Tools of the trade in Pearl Harbor’s hospital: lipstick to mark patients’ foreheads and Coke bottles to hold donated blood. REALITY CHECK Navy nurses like Kate Beckinsale’s Evelyn really did perform primitive triage on incoming wounded. ”The lipstick was nothing I remember doing individually, but it sounds like something we might do,” says Lenore Terrell Rickert, 87, then a Navy nurse on the scene. ”Anything we could do to hurry things up.” While Rickert doesn’t remember any Coke bottles brimming with blood, Goldstein says, ”It did happen, even though it seems awful unsanitary.” You know what they say — Coca-Cola adds life. [5 medals]