December 7: Filmic Myth Masquerading as Historical Fact


James M. Skinner

"When war breaks out, the first casualty is truth."   News correspondent William Howard Russell's dictum on "information management" during the Crimean War remains as true today as it did a century and a half ago.   The invention of the motion picture in the mid-1890s increased immeasurably opportunities for twisting the truth in wartime.

A trend was established in 1898 when J. Stuart Blackton floated a few model boats in his bathtub, set them alight and presented the result to a gullible but enthusiastic audience as The Battle of Manila Bay.   That same year, the Lumiere brothers were entertaining European audiences with what purported to be the incarceration of Captain Dreyfus on Devil's Island although the island was actually a sandpit in the Nile Delta and Dreyfus was an anonymous officer on parade in Paris.   With constant repetition, totally spurious images have passed into the collective consciousness as authentic accounts of events.   Who, for example, can recall the storming of the Winter Palace in Petrograd in 1817 without visualizing Sergei Eisenstein's graphic sequences from October, constructed ten years later and containing not a single frame of authentic footage because such did not exist?   Or what of that shadowy figure in three-quarter shot purporting to be Emperor Haile Selassie lamenting the fate of Abyssinia to a sympathetic interviewer from the March of Time?   Since the Lion of Judah was unavailable, an actor was recruited for the job with no acknowledgement on the part of the producers that would enlighten audiences as to the subterfuge.

But of all the manufactured images for the screen, those of the attack on Pearl Harbor and environs on that memorable Sunday in December 1941 remain among the most deeply etched in the collective mind.   Because of the enormous historical significance of the event, and through constant repetition, they have become the accepted record of the Day of Infamy, appearing in documentary series as prestigious as Why We Fight and Victory at Sea.   And yet they are every bit as false as Eisenstein's recreations.   Even less well-known is the fact that they were culled from a feature-length work that was immediately suppressed after its initial screening and never exhibited thereafter. The story of December 7 has intrinsic interest as a fiasco of World War II film propaganda. Its fate also throws light on the confused situation in which the U.S. government found itself when obliged to enter the propaganda field by force of circumstance after Pearl Harbor. 1

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hickam Field, and other military installations on Oahu, there were no American newsreel cameramen present to record the destruction as it was being wreaked.   This is easily explained both by the surprise nature of the raids and the time of day, just before 8:00 on a Sunday morning.   That which was filmed-- the burning hulks of naval vessels, buildings in flames, the wounded being tended where they lay-- amounted to between five and six minutes of running time. 2   There was, to be sure, aerial footage by Japanese cameramen, but it was unobtainable until later in the war.


The genesis of the project that was to become December 7 lay in a decision taken in the fall of 1939 by John Ford.   Ford was one of a handful of movie directors whose name meant anything to the theatre-going public at that time.   He had a string of commercial successes to his name and had won an Oscar most recently for The Grapes of Wrath (1940).   Born in 1894, Ford had attempted to enlist in the U.S. Navy shortly after Woodrow Wilson's declaration of war against the Central Powers, but he had been turned down because of poor eyesight.   Thanks to some behind-the-scenes wire pulling by his father, he was accepted as a photographer with the navy flying corps although, to his dismay, the appointment was not confirmed until after the Armistice. 3 

Realizing that he would be too old for combat duty in the event of American involvement of World War II, he nevertheless prevailed on an old friend, Colonel William B. ("Wild Bill") Donovan to allow him to establish a Field Photographic Unit just as hostilities were breaking out in Europe.   This would operate under the aegis of Donovan's own nascent Office of Strategic Services (O.S.S., later to become the C.I.A.).   Consisting, for the most part, of Hollywood technicians of Ford's age and older, it was, in his words, "ready to go anywhere" and film any subject that would aid the war effort, if and when the United States became involved.   The chain of command was simple, and therein lay the seeds of disaster for December 7.   Ford was responsible only to Donovan who, in turn, reported directly to the White House.   When Donovan proposed a full-length film on Pearl Harbor and its aftermath to the secretaries of the navy and war, he had in mind a work that would chronicle both the awful destruction of that day and the Herculean task that had been successfully accomplished of patching up surviving ships and having them ready for duty, within three weeks of the attack in some cases. When Ford was asked to suggest a director, he named Gregg Toland. 4 Toland (1904-1948) had entered the film business in 1920 as an office boy with Fox Pictures.   By the early 1930s he was recognized as one of Hollywood's most accomplished cameramen.

Toland, then aged thirty-eight, already had a formidable reputation as a cameraman.   His work on William Wyler's Wuthering Heights had brought him an Academy Award, and he was held in high esteem by the profession for his innovative technique of deep-focus photography on Orson Welle's Citizen Kane.   Like many of his kind, Toland hankered after the directorial chair.   With little or nothing in the way of guidance from Ford or Donovan, he went to Hawaii in February 1942 where he shot some location sequences.   He returned to Hollywood where Twentieth Century-Fox allowed him use of studio space and laboratory facilities.   From then until September 1942, Toland shot thirty-eight thousand feet which he cut to eight thousand for an eighty-three minute feature.   It was semi-documentary in format, mixing fictional characters with "authentic" participants.   Three of Hollywood's better-known actors, Walter Huston, Harry Davenport, Jr., and Dana Andrews were to have the main speaking roles.

The movie begins on December 6 with a weary, restless Uncle Sam ("U.S.," Walter Huston) trying to convalesce in Honolulu after a year of international crises that have sorely tried his endurance.   His discourse to his secretary on the beauty and tranquility of the islands ("Hawaii, T.H.- Territory of Heaven") is suddenly interrupted by the appearance of his conscience, Mr. C (Harry Davenport), a folksy, small-town lawyer type whose geniality masks a racism no less chilling for being charmingly expressed.   While U.S. waxes rhapsodical over the industry and perserverance of a handful of American businessmen who created a prosperous industry in sugar and pineapples out of a dry wilderness, Mr. C. reminds him that he has ignored labor and, in particular, the Japanese who comprise the largest single racial group on the islands.   A sinister Shinto priest, played by the Korean actor Philip An, affirms that the first loyalty of all Japanese-Americans is to their emperor, Hirohito:


               He is the mortal image of our imperial duty...Shintoism preaches honor

                of the ancestor, thereby keeping alive the fires of nationalism and preserving

                a racial and social bond with the unbroken and divinely descended Imperial

                dynasty.   To be Shinto is to be Japanese.   This is not, nor can it be, a matter

                of choice.   It is a duty.

The analogy, says Mr. C. is as if the inhabitants of the United States were to worship George Washington and his presidential successors.   And when U.S. demands of his conscience whether he is implying that all Japanese-Americans are disloyal, Davenport replies in terms similar to those of Milton Eisenhower and the War Relocation Authority then in the process of transplanting tens of thousands of them from the west coast: "Oh no, indeed not.   I wouldn't, nor would anyone, undertake to separate the loyal from the disloyal.   I'm only presenting the facts."   Nevertheless, the sequences which follow immediately would seem to indicate that the islands were teeming with Japanese subversives, aided by a handful of Nazi spies.   Female barbers, a gardener clipping a hedge outside an army washroom, a cab driver, and a dance-hall girl each note and record every slip of the tongue.    They spy on Pearl Harbor with binoculars and transmit the information by hidden radio.   This episode had a grain of truth to it.   There was some reconnoitering of military establishments by Japanese consulate personnel; but the task was not very onerous because the local newspapers unwittingly cooperated heartily.   Consul-General Kiichi Gunji's regular reports on the numbers, disposition, and activities of the U.S. Navy in Hawaii relied heavily on the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, which consistently detailed size and movements in and out of base warships, citing names and exact times of arrival and departure. 5  A sieg-heiling German consul boasts that an agent of his eavesdropped on an innocent conversation as a result of which an American destroyer now lies at the bottom of the North Atlantic.

However, Toland proceeds to commit the cardinal sin of wartime propaganda by presenting the other side of the story.   There is a stirringly patriotic speech by a leader of the Japanese-American community and, later in the film, some of its members are seen buying war bonds and donating blood to banks once hostilities have begun.

There follows the simulated raid on Pearl Harbor and adjacent military installations.   Here, a special effects expert, Ray Kellogg, created the illusions that were to become the documentary reality.   Bit players portray servicemen from Private Joseph Lockard who picked up the first radio signals from incoming planes to the scores of anonymous victims whose ever-so-dramatic deaths are recorded by the fortuitously positioned cameras and in perfect focus.   Matte and back projection shots provide a thrilling, if totally spurious, immediacy to the raids.

To circumvent the inconvenient fact that there were no Japanese planes available, Toland and Kellogg had Japanese insignia painted on American ones.   Scale models of the U.S.S. Arizona and her sister ships are spectacularly exploded.   And to give a devilishly personal touch to the treachery in evidence all around, the smooth-talking Japanese consul, whom we have already encountered exchanging military secrets with his Nazi colleague, disclaims all knowledge of the raid when asked pointed questions by a reporter. Imposed on a map of Japan, radio towers rise over various cities while a dragon, earlier glimpsed at the entrance to a Honolulu Shinto temple appears in the background as a sinister motif.


In sing-song staccato voice that would become depressingly familiar to cinema audiences as the accepted tone for all Japanese, Tojo claims total victory.   A narrator begs to differ and authentic images of renovated ships and convoys fill the screen--proof positive that the nation has just begun to fight and that "he who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword."   An epilogue has a ghostly sailor, a victim of Pearl Harbor (Dana Andrews), address the audience from the Arlington National Cemetery.   His talk is interrupted by a World War I soldier whose cynicism is in marked contrast to the sailor 's optimism.   The doughboy gloomily prophesies a third world war after this one because the U.S.A will retreat into its isolationist shell just as it did after 1919: "America decided they [sic] didn't want to play ball in the international league and left Wilson on third base."   But Andrews will not be denied.   Taking up the baseball metaphor, he declares that he is putting his bets on the Roosevelts, the Churchills, the Stalins, and the Chiang Kai-sheks to make the world safe.

        Safe, period.   Safe for us to continue our democracy; safe for any other nation

      to live under any book of rules whatever its name so long as they [sic] call a

   fair ball fair and a foul ball foul.   This time Uncle Sam's going to be in there

    pitching.   When this ball game is over, a lot of guys are coming back to home

    plate and they're going to ask a lot of questions.

While it is doubtful whether December 7 would ever have been released in its unexpurgated form, its fate was sealed by a government initiative taken when it was still in the production stage.   The official explanation for the Executive Order of 13 June 1942, establishing the Office of War Information (OWI), was "a recognition of the right of the American people and all other peoples opposing the Axis oppressors to be truthfully informed about the common war effort."6 In effect, the OWI rapidly became a massive propaganda-cum-censorship machine, one of whose numerous arms, the Bureau of Motion Pictures, effectively controlled film content for the duration of the war.   In Hollywood, OWI personnel sat in on script conferences, making suggestions and raising objections to elements which they deemed ran contrary to government policy.7

It may be doubted whether any two individuals were in complete agreement as to why the Toland film was unsatisfactory, but all were convinced that it had serious shortcomings.   The first inkling that something was amiss came when Nelson Poynter, bureau chief in Hollywood, saw a rough cut sometime in the first week of November 1942, when Toland and Sam Engel had written the final version of the script and Alfred Newman's music had been added. 8 Poynter was sufficiently concerned to request that his superior, Lowell Mellett, travel from Washington to give a second opinion.9 Mellett concurred and, in memos to the secretaries of war and the navy, urged that the project be halted not only because it was a bad picture, per se, but because the government should not be in the business of making fictional motion pictures, certainly not in relation to matters of immediate historical importance.   Perhaps something might be salvaged from the debacle for a shorter subject for the second anniversary of Pearl Harbor in a year's time.10

Julian Johnson, Twentieth Century-Fox's head of production, in whose little-used studio on Hollywood's Western Avenue much of December 7 had been made, called it "the most powerful American war film I have ever seen, far and away," but lamented the disappearance of U.S. and Mr. C. midway through the narrative:

                After building up two such forceful and believable characters...I think

                we do wrong to lose them entirely after the dawn of December 7.   I

                should come back to the old boy briefly as the last roar of the last assault

                fades away.   Fighting mad, coat off, rolling up his sleeves, he angrily

                agrees that the Conscience had his number, shoves him aside and rushes

                out of the house like a powerful, tortured bull in the bull ring.

Johnson also felt that, as it stood, the "graveyard stuff" was a bad anticlimax and should be deleted.11 The secretary of navy, Frank Knox, possibly with a glance at officially sanctioned policy on the mainland, found the super-patriotic utterances of the Japanese-American community leader an embarrassment.12 But the most damning condemnation came from Admiral Harold Stark, chief of naval operations at the time of Pearl Harbor, then commanding U.S. naval forces in the European theatre.   He sprang to the defense of a colleague, Admiral Husband Kimmel, whose reputation as commander in chief that fateful day in Pearl Harbor would be further maligned if the picture were to be released.   Kimmel had been relieved of command nine days after the raid and was naturally at the center of the controversy that was raging over the navy's perceived unpreparedness.   Wrote Stark:

                It is true that every caution was being maintained to prevent internal sabotage,

                but it is not true that U.S. Navy task forces were not at sea, as they were; also,

                Navy PBYs were out on patrol work...As I reported to the President that

                afternoon, our striking forces were not impaired despite the destruction we

                suffered.   The picture leaves the distinct impression that the Navy was not on

                the job, and this is not true.   Also a goodly part of the damage was done by Jap

                torpedo planes and not enough of these type are shown.   I am not concerned

                with minor inaccuracies but great harm will be done and sleeping dogs

                awakened if the picture is released as it now stands, leaving the impression that

                the Navy was asleep.13

            According to Robert Parrish, who would edit December 7 from its original length to the thirty-three-minute version that would win Ford his fourth Academy Award in 1943 for Best Short (Documentary) Subject, Toland was shattered by the near-unanimous negative reaction and went into something of a depression.   When he recovered, he asked to be sent on duty as far from Washington and its bureaucratic critics as possible.   His wish granted, he spent most of the remainder of the war with the Field Photo Unit in Rio de Janeiro.14

By December 1942 the furor had reached the White House itself.   Roosevelt issued a directive that all existing Field Photo Unit productions be subject to preclearance by the OWI's bureau to prevent a repetition of the fiasco so potentially damaging to public morale.   The working print of December 7 remained literally under lock and key until the following spring when Ford returned from North Africa.   He decided that the government should see some return on its eighty-thousand-dollar investment.   The result was the reconstituted version referred to earlier, shorn of all but the raids and the salvage footage.  

From today's perspective, December 7 deserves the attention of film historians for more than its shadowy reputation as a cinematic skeleton entombed for the best part of half a century.   Amid all the contemporary criticism of Toland's work, little was said, or perhaps could be said, about its major flaw as a piece of propaganda, to wit, its fence-sitting and its inconsistency.   Effective screen propaganda polarizes, reinforces concepts, and deepens prejudices if these harmonize with official policy; or, alternatively, it changes minds and alters consciousness when the public mood is not in tune with the perceived goals of the nation's leadership.   Those aims are not achieved by providing a forum for reasoned debate or attempting to reach a general consensus, as are commonplace media procedures in time of peace.   On the contrary, propaganda must be confrontational, factually selective, deliberately omissive when necessary, allowing no room for doubt, compassion, or the self-examination of issues.   On the screen, such an approach demands clarity of exposition no less than in print.   Given that December 7 was originally intended for a select, targeted audience of servicemen and workers in war industries, the need was for a picture that would confront people who might not be otherwise motivated to watch it of their own accord, and elicit the conditioned responses of hatred for Japan and all things Japanese, as well as pride in the accomplishments of those who had literally salvaged much from the disaster that was Pearl Harbor.

A feasible alternative would have been a shorter, straightforward account of events.   Instead, they would have found an equivocal work with rational discussion of a number of issues: the loyalty (or lack thereof) of the largest racial group on the islands, the myopia of political isolationists in Congress, the errors made by the military in situ that Sunday morning and, perhaps most explosive of all, the possibility of the United States retreating into its prewar shell of non-involvement once the present conflict was over.   For every argument there was a counter-argument.   No sooner has Uncle Sam affirmed his belief in the patriotism of the Japanese-American population than Mr. C. is providing visible, seemingly conclusive evidence to the contrary of espionage by individuals from all walks of life, animated by a quasi-religious devotion to Emperor Hirohito.   Protestations by U.S. of his awareness of the dangerous situation are met with counter-assertions of ostrich-like, head-in-the-sand behaviour by his conscience.

To be fair to Toland and his scriptwriter, Sam Engel, events tended to outpace them.   Whatever strength the isolationist lobby might have had in Washington on the eve of Pearl Harbor were necessarily dissipated both by the attack and by that remarkable gesture of solidarity with the Japanese on the part of Hitler and Mussolini shortly thereafter with their declaration of war on the United States, thus ensuring that world-wide conflict and not a limited Pacific campaign would ensue.   Still, had the film been exhibited publicly, it would have dredged up memories and made the opponents of a forward policy look particularly foolish.

Nevertheless, December 7 is not a negligible achievement as a propaganda vehicle.   It is sometimes forgotten that the U.S. government was a latecomer to the field of government-sponsored documentary.   It was not until 1936 that Pare Lorentz made the first of these, The Plow That Broke the Plains , for the Rural Settlement Administration, and the few titles that appeared in the next four years were greeted with suspicion as thinly veiled publicity for the New Deal Policies.15 Britain, Germany, and the Soviet Union had a good headstart in this field, and their documentarists were able to make the transition from civilian to war themes with ease.   Toland and Ford were trailblazers alongside Frank Capra.   It would have been extraordinary had a near-perfect film emerged.   As it stands, December 7 's images provide an excitement and immediacy which few World War II films can surpass.   Continued recourse to its footage since 1942 is positive proof of its lasting value and a tribute to the unique vision of its creators.



1. The only existing copy of the original, 35-mm version of December 7 is held by the Motion Picture Division of the National Archives and Records Administration (NA), Washington D.C.   This version is in only fair condition and is no longer exhibited.   However, a one-inch video master was made before deterioration set in, and this is available for viewing by accredited researchers.   Half-inch, VHS and Beta copies of the 83-minute feature may also be purchased for home use.   The 33-minute version which John Ford cut from the original footage is readily available in 16-mm and in both video formats from a variety of sources, including the National Audio-Visual Center of the National Archives.   In viewing the original, certain crudities are evident, and these would almost certainly have been rectified by Gregg Toland, the director, had the picture been approved for exhibition.   There are no credit titles; some awkward jumps in transition between scenes are attributable to editing flaws; and a dialogue sequence between the Japanese and German consuls ends very abruptly.   Eye of the Eagle , a video documentary series by Encyclopedia Britannica, has a 53-minute program on the original.   It contains footage and an interview by Richard Schickel of Robert Parrish, who knew Toland and edited the truncated version.   Written primary material relating to the making and suppression of December 7 can be found in Boxes 1433 and 1438, Record Group 208, Office of War Information, Bureau of Motion Pictures, NA.   John Ford's papers are in the Lilly Library, Indiana University.   The Library of Congress, Motion Picture Division, has the OWI Information Sheet for the shorter version.   Also useful is William T. Murphy, "John Ford and the Wartime Documentary" Film and History 4 (February 1976).   The best and most recent study of Ford is Tag Gallagher, John Ford: The Man and His Films (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986).

2. C. Daugherty shot about two hundred feet of 16-mm film and Lt. Commander Edward Young took one hundred feet on a home movie camera in 8-mm Kodachrome.   Both were used as reference material by Toland and a few, very brief portions of Daugherty's material was inserted in the raid part of the film.

3. Gallagher, John Ford, 215-16 (footnote)

4. Murphy, "John Ford and the Wartime Documentary," 4.

5. Gordon W. Prange, At Dawn We Slept (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981), 71-73.

6. Preliminary Report and Inventory, RG 208, NA .

7. OWI bureau pressure on the industry is dealt with at great length in Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D.   Black, Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits and Propaganda Shaped World War Two Movies (New York: Free Press, 1987).

8. Poynter to Mellett, 9 October 1942, Box 1438, RG 208, NA .

9. Poynter to Mellett, 9 November 1942, ibid.

10. Mellett to James Forestal, 1 December 1942, ibid.

11. Quoted in Murphy, "John Ford and the Wartime Documentary," 6-7

12. Stimson to Mellett, 13 January 1943, and Stimson to Davis, 13 May 1943, Box 1433, RG 208, NA.

13. Quoted in Murphy, "John Ford and the Wartime Documentary," 7.

14. Eye of the Eagle interview (see note 1).

15. For a full account of congressional hostility, see Robert L. Snyder, Pare Lorents and the Documentary Film (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1976), especially Chapter 7.


This article by James M. Skinner originally appeared in the Journal of Military History (vol. 55 #4, October 1991), 507-516. It is here reprinted with permission.

Copyright 1991 by the Society for Military History.