The reel facts

Film and History - Robert Fox on how Hollywood takes cinematic liberties with the truth

At a lumbering three hours, Jerry Bruckheimer's blockbuster Pearl Harbor takes twice as long as the real Japanese action on the morning of 7 December 1941 - and probably cost twice as much as it did to equip the entire Japanese battle fleet that day.

The big loser in this version of the battle that brought Franklin D Roosevelt and the United States into the Second World War is a sense of history. Indeed, history is on the retreat throughout blockbuster-land, and Pearl Harbor is a prize example. The sharp edges and ironies of what really went on are flattened, or simply airbrushed. The intrigues and plots in both the US and Japanese commands are quietly and commercially censored, for fear of giving offence.

The great historical figures such as Roosevelt and the Japanese Navy's commander-in-chief, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, are reduced to cardboard cut-outs who speak in soundbites - more CNN than cinema. Yamamoto - one of only three Japanese figures named in the cast list - is a fascinating figure who holds the clue as to why the battle was the right tactic in the wrong place, a pyrrhic victory that forecast ultimate defeat for Japan.

Harvard-educated, a compulsive gambler who enjoyed his time in London and Washington, Yamamoto did not want to go to war with America. But, once the decision to fight the US was taken, he understood that the Pacific Fleet must be destroyed - but not in Pearl Harbor. He wanted to lure the full fleet into the vast wastes of the northern Pacific, where he knew the superior Japanese torpedoes had the advantage. There, he knew he could destroy the fleet, including the aircraft carriers (which were absent on the day in Pearl Harbor), and leave it no line of retreat.

His warning that Japan had "awakened a sleeping giant" is hidden under the schmaltzy and wholly inaccurate epilogue, claiming that this experience led to a new America and a new victory. Yamamoto knew that the US would win more by industrial than by tactical muscle. In fact, the huge industrial strength concealed poor planning and coordination between land and sea forces. The mistrust between the land and sea commanders, Lieutenant-General Short and Admiral Kimmel, which compounded the chaos at Pearl Harbor (skimmed over in the film), continued under their successors, General MacArthur and Admiral Nimitz - a dysfunctional tradition that was to continue through Vietnam to Kosovo.

It is hard to think of a really good recent Hollywood movie about the Second World War. Even George C Scott in Patton seemed a dated, neo-fascist ranter, on a recent TV rerun. History and irony are just not box office, it seems, so bring on the lip gloss and the airbrush to keep Disney and Tinseltown happy.

And yet a raft of European films shows that recent history can be the stuff of good movies. The Italian Mediterraneo, directed by Gabriele Salvatores, which won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1991, touched on a similar theme to this summer's big turkey, Captain Corelli's Mandolin. The story of Italian sailors escaping the war on an Aegean island is told with a pathos and irony that the Hollywood epic wholly lacks. And a new film that shouldn't be missed (although probably few will see it because it is still without a distributor) is the Anglo-Czech-German production Dark Blue World, a tale of Czech pilots fighting for the RAF. Directed by Jan Sverak, it's a little masterpiece from the team that made Kolya, also an Oscar-winner in 1997. The action shots were built around out-takes from The Battle of Britain, and the entire production cost $8m, little more than the budget for the promotion of Pearl Harbor. From the grainy effects for scenes in the mess, down to the slightly scruffy appearance of the WAAFs, the sense of period is flawless. The makers of Pearl Harbor and Corelli should see this gem of a movie, and blush.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the people who make Tony Blair sweat