Pearl Harbor (2001) is the perfect example of how to spend a lot of money making a terrible film.  Beset by budget arguments, production problems and a truly awful script the result was a moderate commercial success but an abject critical failure.  While people have been dissecting this cinematic turd for nearly two decades, an element of the story that has never been revealed before is the years-long battle with the Pentagon over the script, especially when it came to the horny Navy nurses who were obsessed with their breasts.

Following the gargantuan success of Titanic Hollywood was looking around for other emotive historical events that could be adapted into epic action sequences with tedious romance plots tacked on.  For some reason they settled on Pearl Harbor and Disney signed up Michael Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer to make one of the least critically successful blockbusters of all time.  Boasting a 24% Rotten Tomatoes score (though a surprisingly high audience score) Pearl Harbor is widely considered to be one of the worst war films ever made, and I agree.  It is dull, overly long, poorly paced, contains far too much dialogue that has little impact on plot or characters and I honestly felt the depiction of the Pearl Harbor attack in Tora! Tora! Tora! was better, despite the pre-CGI production values.

Naturally, the film could not have been made without the Pentagon’s full support in terms of access to bases on Hawaii, use of mothballed WW2-era ships, and visual research to enable the computer animators to recreate battle sequences.  One document in the DOD’s file on the movie says it was their biggest project for 20 years, and it is clear from the file and the movie itself that this was a production that was dependent on the US military (as well as the Japanese and British governments).

As per usual this involved several rounds of script reviews, and the list of DOD concerns with the various screenplays is a long one.  It includes the portrait of General Doolittle, who led the Doolitte raid to bomb Tokyo (the script had him as a coarse, profane man not the refined aeronautics PhD and decorated combat pilot he really was), the need to civilianise FDR’s advisors who told him of Japanese plans to invade the US, and the correct slang for referring to Ze Germans:

Page 34 – “Bloody Krauts!” Krauts was American military slang, the
British version would be “Bloody Jerries!”

One of the DOD’s ongoing concerns was the portrayal of a group of Navy nurses, who serve as the romantic interests for the various male protagonists.  One email to Phil Strub included an interview with the original screenwriter Randall Wallace where he explained how he and Michael Bay disagreed over the female characters:

One of our arguments was that Michael wanted to tone down the strength of the women and build up the men. He wanted to double what the men did. For example,  instead of them just jumping in planes and flying up and taking on the Japanese, two fighters against hundreds of fighters. l thought that was significant and realistic courage. He wanted them to get into flight while being strafed and do zigzags and fly around the tower and have guys in the tower shoot down planes. That’s the sort of thing he wanted to amp up. What the men did. But the women in the hospital were taking charge under difficult circumstances. In my opinion women will love seeing women being strong and in charge.

This very weak and secondary depiction of the nurses comes through in the Pentagon’s script notes, which complain of the women being obsessed with sex and with their own bodies.  For example:

Page 37 – Navy nurses were proper ladies and proper ladies did not say they got “horny” in 1941.

Another set of notes said to change ‘horny’ to ‘gets me in the mood’.  Another issue was a scene where the nurses refer to their breasts looking good in the uniforms, with Army entertainment liaison office head Kathy Ross writing:

p. 9 – Boobs—why use such low-class terminology; nurses were generally well-educated and raised to be respectable. Women applicants for the military were much more scrutinized for their character and manners than men ever were.

The DOD’s notes also picked up on this scene, saying:

Pg. 9, A MOVING TRAIN – The Navy nurses are introduced in a fashion that is anachronistic and also a bit crudely, fixated on how their breasts will appear, Recommend having them stress the importance of having not only good uniforms but, more significantly, alluring party dresses and bathing suits.

They also had an issue with one of the nurses switching her affections from one male character to another:

Pg. 44– Love from grief, didn’t really work for “Random Hearts” A single kisses is much more powerful than a lovemaking scene. Evelyn seems a bit loose. First she jumps into a relationship with Rafe, then when she suspects he might be dead she jumps into the cockpit with Danny.

So while the DOD had no problem with reducing the women to mere love interests and sex objects, they wanted to preserve the idealised but largely inaccurate idea that the 1940s were a prim, proper conservative time when women behaved themselves ‘appropriately’.  One only has to consider the phenomenon of war children to recognise this rose-tinted view of the past for what it really is.  (Please note: I am not criticising women of the 1940s for their sexual and relationship choices, I’m criticising the DOD for maintaining a nostalgic pretence).

There are a great many other script changes requested – and in most cases, made – by the Pentagon, with the script still being reviewed and revised as the film started shooting, over two years after the initial Disney approach to the DOD.  This included removing a scene where the US sailors shoot and kill a downed Japanese pilot during the Pearl Harbor attack, a classic and typical example of the DOD seeking to sanitise war via Hollywood films.

Documents

DOD Film Office file on Pearl Harbor