Tomorrow being December 7th, we here in the United States mark a watershed period in our history. Perhaps younger people do not mark it at all anymore. But in a way, the anniversary remains even more relevant today than in the past four or five decades.
The film called “December 7th” (1943) is part documentary, part propaganda to explain and review the events of December 7th. The war was still going on when the film was released, and so this colors objectivity as well as limits what information the government could prudently release. It is an odd film, and gives us insight into an era and ourselves that is sometimes discomforting.
The film is divided into three segments. In the first segment, Walter Huston, playing the part of Uncle Sam on vacation in Hawaii, is confronted by his conscience, called Mr. C, played by Harry Davenport. Their scene is sharp, well-written, and is an allegory of what might have been the stream-of consciousness of the average American of the day.
Uncle Sam is fed up with the rat race and wants to take it easy, not do anything, not think about anything for a while, just enjoy his isolationist peace in a tropical paradise. He gloats to Mr. C, “You hop a Clipper in San Francisco and in less than 24 hours, you’re in paradise.”
We see the date on the newspaper lying on a table is December 6th, so we know something is about to happen and Uncle Sam does not.
Mr. C. is cynical, combative, and instigates a debate with the unwilling Uncle Sam. He ridicules Uncle Sam’s pride in the sugar cane and pineapple paradise of the Territory of Hawaii, and berates his bombastic pride, reminding him that it took human labor to build Hawaii’s modern agriculture and industry.
“You’re a great one to play ostrich when you want to,” Mr. C scoffs. Mr. C’s position is that most of the contract laborers are Japanese, that 37 percent of the Islands are Japanese. There is a montage of Honolulu businesses with Japanese names and signs in Japanese writing.
Uncle Sam’s position is so what? They are Americans, and a patriotic speech delivered by one Japanese-American underscores their loyalty and devotion to the United States, stressing “we were born here.” It is a remarkable speech, and even more remarkable that it even had to be made.
There are shots of Japanese-American children pledging allegiance to the flag in school assembly and singing a heartwarming and humbling version of “God Bless America.”
But nagging Mr. C is unconvinced. He reminds Uncle Sam that these are “hyphenated Americans” who also send their children to Japanese language schools and attend Shinto temples, which Mr. C refers to as their “so-called” religion. Phillip Ahn plays a brief role as a Shinto priest, affirming that they worship the Emperor and that all Japanese have a racial bond to honor their ancestors. It is a sneering Mr. C who smiles at Uncle Sam’s naiveté.
Mr. C goes on to imply that the Japanese-Americans are spies. He says to Uncle Sam, “You want peace, but you want it the easy way. You want to go on leading your life, but you don’t want to fight for it.”
This film is uncomfortably schizophrenic in a way that wartime society was schizophrenic, in the way that Americans enjoy perceiving their nation as the most free and equitable on earth, and yet are constantly suspicious about the value of their fellow Americans. Clearly we did not know what to think in the days following our entry into war, and if the government desired through this film to tell us what to think, they didn’t know what to say either.
The second part of the film shows the actual bombing of Pearl Harbor. There is a bit of newsreel footage used, but most of this segment is a re-creation, with some impressive cinematography by Gregg Toland, whose innovations on “Citizen Kane” (1941) and “The Best Years of Our lives” (1946) among other films marked him as a serious talent.
In the third part of this film, we see the ghosts of the men who died at Pearl Harbor. First we see photographs of actual servicemen and film footage of their parents, with a voice over narration by Dana Andrews, who plays the part of all of them. It is very affecting, to have these faces and families of Hispanic, African-American, white servicemen of different ethic and religious backgrounds all speaking their message from heaven with the same voice. Another unseen narrator questions the ghosts of these men and asks, “How did it happen that you all sound alike?” Dana Andrews answers, “We are all alike. We are all Americans.”
A noble sentiment, but there are no Japanese-American servicemen represented. Many Americans of Japanese ancestry would soon be fighting the Nazis in Italy, and we see in the film that Honolulu’s Japanese population joins the war effort and many young men join the service.
The film ends with Dana Andrews dressed as a sailor walking through what may be Arlington National Cemetery, guided by a vet from World War I. They debate about the future, and the World War II ghost is more hopeful, stating that there will never be another war when this one is over, because his sensible generation would set things right.
The World War I vet scoffs, because that was what he was told when he was sent to “make the world safe for democracy.”
But the World War II ghost insists that democracy is not the aim this time, but to make the world safe for any nation “who many choose to live under a democracy or any other name, just so long as they call a fair ball fair and a foul ball foul.”
Using baseball terminology may be typically American, but its continued use in the debate does little but cloud the issues. What is fair and what is foul is sometimes up for cultural interpretation, and it is difficult to reconcile ourselves to behavior which we call barbaric and another culture might call honorable. The World War I vet grimly insists that in 15 or 20 years there will be a new war, and new sections of the cemetery will be open for those servicemen.
The optimism of the World War II ghost becomes all the more painful to hear after that remark, since the World War I vet was right. There was another war 20 years later, and more after that.
Today we continue to struggle with diversity in our society and the prospect of hyphenated Americans. We continue to struggle with a desire to be isolationist and a desire to be involved overseas. We struggle again with the appalling shock of another surprise attack, and how is it even possible to come to terms with it? Perhaps it’s just not possible to put such an obscene event into calm perspective.
One can see that America had not come to terms with the bombing of Pearl Harbor during the 1940s, and that this film, though it illustrates that, probably did little to address it. When the war was over, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, like the terrible experiences of so many veterans, was put aside and allowed to fade with time, but was never really faced.