Pearl Harbour: America's escape into myth

About the author
Neil Belton is a senior editor at Faber & Faber and a writer. He is the author of The Good Listener: A Life Against Cruelty (Orion, 1998).
Every Irish child of my generation was taken to see the General Post Office on O’Connell Street in Dublin. In a central position, against the windows of the great ground floor hall, a place had been found for a modest bronze statue of a young warrior strapped to a rock. His body leaning forward, obviously in pain, he signified, in his effort to stay upright, the approach of death.

This is the dying Cuchullain, the hero of the Ulster cycle of bardic poems. Earlier in the cycle (if ordinary chronology has any meaning in the narrative of myth) Cuchullain has saved Ulster single-handedly, holding off the armies of all the other Irish provinces while the men of his own province are mysteriously sick and unprepared, “prostrate in their pangs”, struck by some collective weakness. These events occur in the most famous old Irish poem, the seventh century Tain Bo Cuailnge, the Cattle Raid on Cooley. The raiders fail; the hero is too powerful.

Myth into politics – and back

That statue in the post office commemorates the Easter Rising of 1916, which began on the steps outside, but it does more than this: it is an elegant symbol of necessary sacrifice. The men and women of the doomed insurrection stood here, their backs to the wall, in order to rouse Ireland from her slumber. No single work of art, no mythological figure, remains as controversial in modern Irish history as this lethal youth – into whose mouth Patrick Pearse put the words: “better is short life with honour than long life with dishonour”. The rebels were, in imagination, re-enacting the sacrifice of Cuchullain, and ever since, the nature of that sacrifice – its ethics, its entry into history – has been debated and questioned.

Yeats revisited this mythic figure, about whom he had written a cycle of plays early in his career, again and again, criticising in one of his last poems his own enchantment by a dream: “Character isolated by a deed/To engross the present and dominate memory./Players and painted stage took all my love/And not those things that they were emblems of.” Declan Kiberd’s great study of the imagination of Irish nationalism, Inventing Ireland, has no less than 28 index entries for Cuchullain, most of them referring to the 1916 rebels’ creative use of the figure as a screen for their improvised, utopian and exalted form of street theatre.

The slim heroic youth has, in other words, come down from his plinth, left the realm of myth and entered the questioning world of democracy.

Yet it is frightening to think that there may be some compulsive political archetype at work in this story of the seventh century that became so “real” again in the early twentieth century. Even more alarming, a version of this myth may have its equivalent in all cultures, and may now be haunting the collective intelligence of the most powerful state the world has ever seen. The United States, in some versions of itself, seems to be searching for a fable that will support an image of a country surrounded, misunderstood, righteous and enviable. The men around the younger Bush seem enchanted by a dream of baleful isolation, of uncontaminated, sheltered existence for an America that will always be different from and threatened by the rest of the world. They seem to be escaping from politics into myth.

More tedium than infamy

These reflections were provoked by the film Pearl Harbour, a product of the violent Hollywood machine and, perhaps, of the current American zeitgeist. The occasion for the film is well known. The Japanese attack attempted to knock out a rival great power so that Japan could pillage natural resources then in the hands of the West, and become the dominant Empire over the whole of South East Asia. It had no immediate military justification, no excuse in escalating border tensions or clashes of populations. It was a pure strategic blow delivered across 3,000 miles of ocean.

In the film, America is not ready: its defences are weak, its armies small. It is not expecting a violent attack. The Harbour itself is a tranquil, sheltered place, full of beautiful and enormous capital ships. The Japanese have practised for months on a virtual Pearl Harbour, and have attacked it to perfection. The real Harbour is, in the event, lacking in reality: the aircraft carriers are not there. Although it is devastating, the blow sows the seeds of the attacker’s downfall.

This film is inevitably an exercise in remembering a day that will live “in infamy” – Roosevelt’s phrase intoned by his impersonator Jon Voight and booming out in the film’s trailer. Yet this is a weird recreation of a turning point in the story of American power. It has a Birdsong-like vulgarity, structure and sentimentality – a tedious love affair that goes on for what would once have been a reel (the cinematic equivalent of the first hundred numbing pages of Sebastian Faulks’s novel), and then massive and violent re-enactment of war: the heart of the action and a device for resolving the love affair. One lover rises from the dead to find he has been replaced by his friend. Later the friend dies in his arms and the main hero will marry the girl after all, his friend living on in her child.

Even the recent Stalingrad film Enemy at the Gates, for all its faults, is a romance in war. It uses love to “humanise” war, the old trick of love snatched behind the lines, on leave, in hospital – the pretty nurse, the peasant girl, the officer’s wife. In All Quiet on the Western Front three French girls are bought for bread and sausage; physical love keeps death at bay for an hour. Pearl Harbour instead uses war to eroticise death and victimhood.

Star Wars for military buffs

What is unusual about the reception of Pearl Harbour is that the public seems to have sensed that the critics were right. American audiences seem to be jittery when it comes to stirring films about the key events of their history. Critical and commercial flops cluster around such moments: the earlier Pearl Harbour outing Tora, Tora, Tora!; Revolution (on the American war of independence); and Gettysburg, a horse and beard epic in which the solemn generals on either side are as tearful as Dickens uncles, and into which the awkward question never intrudes of what the film’s principal upright man, Robert E Lee, was actually fighting for.

The exception to this rule may be Mel Gibson’s Braveheart-in-America, The Patriot, which is essentially a thriller vehicle in historical costume: good guy just wants to be left alone, his family is violated by psychopathic bad Brit colonel; cue orgies of retribution. Yet such a film won’t linger and become a popular classic. Perhaps they all protest too much, too stridently.

The audiences that stayed away may have sensed something else, some deeper worry about what Pearl Harbour is dreaming aloud. It is difficult at first to see what this might be. They certainly have nothing to fear from cheapness or carelessness of historical reconstruction.

The film’s very surface reeks of cost, and it wants us to adore machinery – wants us to be aware of the technology of illusion and the beautiful machines that it recreates and multiplies on vast scales. In the first scene of the film, the two young boys who will become fighter pilots watch a crop-duster sweep low over their fathers’ fields while they play in the carcass of an old biplane. The camera dwells lovingly on the rusted radial engine of the wreck.

Later the film will conjure up enormous fleets of such vanished aircraft, especially in a magnificent and contrived scene that recalls the director Michael Bay’s garlanded career in advertising and rock videos (Miller Lite, Nike, Meatloaf): young children playing on a hillside look up and see a plane with red roundels on its wings fly past, the one plane becoming dozens, hundreds, a swarm of predators filling the giant screen on their way into the peaceful bay. In the actual attack, we are offered visions that fuse our perspective to that of a diving aircraft, of a torpedo in the water, of a fighter darting between the high walls of capital ships. It is Star Wars rewritten by military history buffs, a video game for pedants. The old planes are dinosaurs, and can be cloned just as easily by the effects department computer.

Wearing the enemy’s codes

The casualties inflicted on the US Navy and Air Force on 8 December 1941 here become emotional justification for the eventual unleashing of righteous retaliatory violence, the bad guys littering the stage in the fifth act of the revenge drama. Disaster is recreated lovingly. The camera lingers on the dead and dying, bodies floating in the water like sea creatures, as a giant battleship, the Arizona, turns slowly onto its side and sinks.

This is America the beautiful in the bodies of its young men (the film is spectacularly homoerotic) and its armed might, but never more so than in death and momentary defeat, cradling the head of a martyr while the music of Vaughan Williams swells and is drowned out by the massed drums of revenge. And of course this tugs at you emotionally, it works for a moment. You feel you are present at the rape of innocence.

As Ian Buruma pointed out, one of the weird things about the film is the way it invokes the samurai code on behalf of all-American soldiers. The Doolittle raid on Tokyo is presented as a suicide mission, and clean-cut Midwestern boys speak the martial rhetoric of pure will and the wish for glorious death. “I’m not anxious to die sir, just anxious to matter,” one of the heroes tells his commander. “Victory belongs to those who believe in it the most,” Doolittle declares to his men.

There is something bizarre in all this, this hysterical insistence that only those who are willing to die can win. It is the imaginary adoption by democracy of the feudal warrior ethic, itself re-imagined by twentieth century dictatorships: the death cult of the SS and the Kamikaze. The West did not need this mystique of blood to win its share of the war: it out-produced, out-mechanised and out-bombed the rickety armies of fascism.

Keeping the world at bay

And perhaps this is the deeper reason for the film’s failure. This is not a patriotic anthem, but a cry of fear and rage. It is not offering us the humanist cliché of the Stalingrad film and older war movies. Pearl Harbour is a huge cinematic display of imperial impotence, a homage to feudal militancy at a moment when America as a state is unwilling to kill a single American for the sake of any democratic or idealist foreign policy.

“All we have done is awaken a sleeping giant,” says one of the catatonically dignified Japanese generals, an honourable man troubled by what he must do. (Rather like Lee and Longstreet in the film of Gettysburg – for the sake of key markets, defenders of the worst can be given halos. It is probably a mercy that Hollywood does not have to sell its wares to a German audience that has failed to come to terms with its past, or Nazi screen generals would soon be uttering grave maxims about the tragedy of war). The film seems to emanate from the dream-world of this sleeping giant, who wishes to be at once invulnerable and also blithely reckless, to be safe in his perfect world and yet to strike enormous martial attitudes.

I kept being reminded, irreverently, even as I was pulled along by the film’s great surges of crude emotion, of another American screen soldier: Colonel Jack D Ripper, played as a ruminative lunatic by Sterling Hayden in Dr Strangelove, conserving his “precious bodily fluids” the better to fight a mad war of extermination. Or, perhaps, a war of total defence, keeping out the rest of the world that does not understand us, that just cannot and will not share our strict values, our wild freedoms and terrible punishments for too much freedom.

Where is the hero or the machine that will protect us, when we are ailing and defenceless? Dreams of purity, of absolute separation from evil. Innocence will be raped it if it is not sheltered behind ever higher walls. The surviving hero of Pearl Harbour is the one who has not slept with the girl; and the America silently, anxiously present in the film is the country that no longer dares shed its blood.