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Jewish World Review June 4, 2001 / 14 Sivan, 5761

Paul Greenberg

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Springtime for TOJO

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- "The Producers'' is back and making it big on Broadway, with its running gag about a designed-to-fail musical called "Springtime for Hitler.'' So why not turn Pearl Harbor into an action movie and love triangle? Hey, no sooner thought than, unfortunately, done.

To quote that lifetime student of American banality, H.L. Mencken, nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public. The only surprise is that "Pearl Harbor'' is only a hit instead of breaking all-time attendance records. There are apparently limits even to American vapidity.

"Pearl Harbor'' turns out to be not so much docudrama or love story as comedy. It seems to bear out Karl Marx's one sensible observation: History occurs twice -- once as tragedy, the second time as farce.

According to early reports, audiences at the previews were bursting into laughter at the funniest lines, none of which were intended to be funny. For example, a Japanese admiral is shown radioing back home as he steams toward his rendezvous with history: "The rise and fall of our empire is at stake!'' The rise and fall?

That's almost as good as the caption under a picture in one review of the film: "An air attack by bombers from the Imperial Empire of Japan changes the course of history in 'Pearl Harbor.''' As opposed to a non-imperial empire?

There seems to be something about the movie that's catching, namely its awful syntax.

In the best contemporary fashion, the nurse-heroine and hypotenuse of the film talks endlessly about Our Relationship with one side of the triangle before reaching her narrative climax: "And then all this happened.'' By which she seems to mean the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America's entrance into the Second World War. Gosh, the smallest details can upset the best romances.

The farce got under way even before the movie was released -- with reports that the version of the film for the Japanese and German markets was discreetly edited to avoid offending any aggressors. For example, in the made-for-export version of the film, characters do not use wartime phrases like "dirty Japs.'' It was a decision moved by the New Sensitivity, by which I mean not so much a concern for others' feelings as for the moviemakers' profits.

"The studio felt,'' to quote another PR type, "and the filmmakers agreed, that you have got to be culturally sensitive.'' Why, sure. The only wonder is that, in the versions of the movie made for Tokyo and Berlin, the Axis Forces don't win the war.

To quote a review from a British paper, the Sun: "Producers are ditching a closing speech by Brit Kate Beckinsale, 27, telling how the U.S. bounced back from the cowardly Japanese raid on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor to win the war. The decision came after Disney chiefs canvassed people worldwide to see if anyone would be offended.

"A source said: 'We've tried very hard not to portray Japanese in a very bad light. They are a huge market and accounted for 20 percent of the profits for 'Titanic.' The film barely refers to the Germans but we have cut the speech for them, too. It won't make a big difference, most people know who won the war.'''

So who says the film isn't historically accurate? It may not reflect the 1940s very well, but the merchandising behind it is a perfect summation of this new century's banal, narcissistic, only technically competent and wholly mercantile sensibility.

According to the script, the poor Japanese were forced to attack Pearl Harbor, much as they honorably regretted it, after the United States imposed an oil embargo on them for no clear reason. To quote the sorrowful Japanese commander in the film, "We have no choice but war.'' Which is pretty much the version still being taught in Japanese schools. And the lesson this film may leave with an impressionable generation of Americans who get their history from the likes of Oliver Stone.

The moviemakers felt no need to go into detail. Or they might have mentioned that, by the time this country cut off Japan's oil shipments, the Japanese had been invading their neighbors for years. In the early 1930s, Japan absorbed Manchuria and Outer Mongolia before striking deep into China. Despite the condemnation of the League of Nations, the emperor's troops pressed on into French Indochina and the Dutch East Indies.

By 1940, Imperial Japan would conclude the Tripartite Pact with German Nazis and Italian fascists, giving its military a free hand in Asia. The Japanese didn't declare war -- that would only have tipped their hand -- but they never hesitated to wage it.

None of this history makes the movie. That's understandable. With only three hours to tell the story, a few details had to be left out. Like the Rape of Nanking and the bombing of the USS Panay and, well, history.

Instead, a chivalrous Japanese pilot is shown waving innocent schoolchildren aside as he makes his bomb run on Pearl Harbor.

Here is a movie for our politically correct time, in which the villain is no human agency but war itself, which just has a way of starting now and then without reference to the Hitlers, Hirohitos and Tojos. All had their reasons, and no one is really to blame. Moral accountability is one of those puritanical delusions we have finally managed to put behind us.

As usual, our view of the past says most about the present. To judge by this all-too-revealing glimpse of the Hollywood mindset, the American present is self-indulgent, historically amnesiac, and wholly disbelieving of the possibility of evil in the world -- which always seems to surprise us when it erupts. As it did at the real Pearl Harbor. In at least that one regard, the America of 2001 seems remarkably like the America of Dec. 6, 1941.

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