Directors: John Ford, Gregg Toland
Producer: John Ford
Writer: Budd Schulberg (uncredited)
Cast: Walter Huston, Harry Davenport, Dana Andrews, James K. McGuinness
Studio: Navy Department, U.S. War Department
Why I DVRed This: When I was in college, I took a class about postwar politics and culture, but the class started by looking at American culture before and during World War II. As part of that, the professor showed scenes from a number of John Ford movies, including December 7th. His thesis was that John Ford’s politics changed from fairly liberal to fairly conservative as a result of the war (I would argue that even Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath is far less liberal than the source material was, but there is no denying that Ford’s postwar Westerns certainly feel conservative). For December 7th, the class watched part of the movie in which Uncle Sam sleeps while America gets sneak attacked. I found it funny then, because it’s such a stupid plot. When I saw it on the TCM schedule, I figured I would want to get the context for all that. Spoiler alert: It was still funny (No, I’m not laughing at Pearl Harbor but, rather, the premise of the film).
Presentation on TCM: TCM made no special announcements about this film. However, it is worth noting that TCM aired the uncensored version of the film (mostly created by Gregg Toland), rather than the half-hour long, censored version (mostly created by Ford) that was released in the 1940s. And, believe it or not, TCM aired the film on December 7, 2015, the 74th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attacks.
Synopsis: The film has three sections. The first section takes place on December 6, 1941. Uncle Sam, “U.S.” (Huston), is relaxing in Hawaii, without a care in the world. His friend, Mr. C., his conscience (Davenport), warns him about the nefarious and perfidious Japanese who inhabit Hawaii while U.S. assures him there is nothing to worry about. In the second section, Pearl Harbor is bombed, and the film recreates very realistic visuals of the attack. Finally, in the third section, America meets the ghosts of those killed at Pearl Harbor and their parents, and the nation is assured that America is on the path to victory in World War II.
Analysis (contains spoilers): So, this movie is downright offensive. Yes, it’s a propaganda film, so there is a clear bias partially forgiven by historical context. But even in that context, this movie is hard to watch (indeed, this is more offensive than any of the other American propaganda films I’ve seen and is much closer to the propaganda of the Nazi regime). It all but endorses something even worse than the internment policies of Roosevelt during World War II and seems to encourage hatred and fear of a racialized enemy. The halfhearted attempts at the end of the film to imply that not all the Japanese are that bad (we see, for instance, Nisei and immigrant shop owners changing their signs from kanji to English) fall short after an hour spent riling up the audience with footage of Japanese laborers eavesdropping on American servicemen so they can report intelligence back to Emperor Hirohito, who Mr. C. reminds us, is worshipped by Shintoists.
All that being said, this film is fascinating as a historical document. Ford, a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy Reserves, spent part of 1940 recruiting fellow filmmakers to join what would become the OSS Field Photographic Branch, a group tasked with documenting the coming war and creating propaganda and training films. One of the first wartime projects commissioned for the group was a documentary about the Pearl Harbor attack that would also serve as propaganda to reassure the American people that the US would come back stronger than ever. The Navy told Ford to create a short documentary with a very rapid turnaround time, and Ford commissioned Toland to direct. Toland, best known today as the innovative cinematographer of Citizen Kane, had long dreamed of directing (he was the photographer of several Ford movies before the war and had won an Academy Award for Wuthering Heights) and jumped at the opportunity. In January of 1942, he went to Honolulu to begin filming. The project was to take a month or so.
Instead, Toland spent nearly a year flying between Honolulu and Los Angeles and recreating battle footage in the special effects studios on the Fox lot. And instead of a simple film about the heroism of American servicemen, he created an 85-minute film that spent significant amounts of time delving into the lives of the Japanese-Americans living in Hawaii and reminding everyone that hundreds of thousands of such Japanese-Americans were responsible for the attack. Admiral Harold Stark hated the film, writing that “This picture leaves the distinct impression that the Navy was not on the job, and this is not true.” To appease the Navy, Ford re-edited the film to avoid inflaming small-town Americans into acts of violence on the Japanese-Americans interned in their towns and to, of course, make the Navy look better. Even after Ford’s edits, the film was pretty much un-releasable (and by 1943, a documentary about Pearl Harbor didn’t really need to be released), but it still won Ford an Academy Award for short documentary. Toland never directed again, though he continued to work as a cinematographer until his death in 1948.
All of this makes clear that the film’s authorship is not totally clear. It officially is credited to Ford (with Toland credited for cinematography), even though the version TCM showed was Toland’s. Thus, while I would love to compare December 7th to the myth-versus-fact themes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance or Fort Apache, I will refrain. Instead, I feel like the film is principally Toland’s, and indeed the only parts of the film that aren’t outright offensive are those that reflect Toland’s talents as a cinematographer. The action scenes are impressive, and the whole film is shot well.
The politics of the film are, however, another story. The entirety of the first section of the film exists as a debate between a relaxed Uncle Sam—called “U.S.” throughout the picture as if to cement what is already obvious, namely that he here represents America at large—and Mr. C., the conscience of Uncle Sam and, by extension, all of America. While U.S. relaxes, Mr. C. rails against the “hyphenated” American identity of the Japanese in Honolulu. He reminds U.S. that they print newspapers in Japanese, practice a Japanese religion, and eat Japanese food. U.S. counters that they also work in America, speak English, and support American life. But Mr. C. persists—that is not good enough. Mr. C. reminds all of America to be suspicious of cultural pluralism and “hyphenated” Americanism. As the voice of our conscience, he’s telling us what we deep down inside are supposed to already know. The message is reminiscent of the Barry Goldwater ad from 1964—“in your heart, you know he’s right.” Mr. C. confirms that our conscience is right too, as he shows the Japanese gardeners, dancers, barbers, cab drivers, etc. eavesdropping on conversations and reporting what they hear back to Japan. Any one of them could be a spy, and apparently anyone who retains aspects of their native culture is not to be trusted.
The second section of the film shows us why—it’s basically a half hour of recreated footage of the attack. This section is technically impressive. Indeed, I actually could not tell that it was all recreated, as it looked very real. Of course, the fact that it’s not archival footage poses a problem for a project that was supposed to be a documentary, but that did not seem to be a concern for the filmmakers.
In the third section, the film cements its vision of the “true” American identity. We are introduced to the ghosts of soldiers killed at Pearl Harbor and their families. Toland shows a diverse array of people—a Jew, an Italian, an Irishman, a Latino, even a Black—from a wide array of places—New Mexico, Brooklyn, a farm in Ohio. The narrator asks them why they all sound the same, given they’re backgrounds. One of the ghosts says it’s because they’re “all Americans.” The film makes it clear, thus, that a true American is one who gives up the hyphenated identity and assimilates entirely into a classless, raceless American identity (obviously this is a thing that has never existed in America, but neither Mr. C. or U.S. are particularly interested in the truth).
This message was embraced by the liberal consensus of the early Cold War years, and World War II certainly helped to create it. But it’s very tough to watch a film that outright promotes xenophobia and hatred of an entire group of people. And again, I have to emphasize that this film is even more offensive than most propaganda films. It’s very strange that Toland went from Citizen Kane to December 7th in a matter of months.
Should I Have DVRed This On TCM: I mean, I’m happy I saw it. But I wouldn’t watch it again. I did not like this movie, in case that wasn’t clear.