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Some Pearl Harbor residents find silver lining in film

After a long wait for blockbuster film, Hawaiian locals have faint praise. But military personnel approve of its portrayal of war.

Residents of this palm-graced paradise were caught completely off guard that infamous December day in 1941, but they've been waiting for "Pearl Harbor" for more than a year.

Now that the movie has arrived in all its hyperbole-drenched glory, the islanders who live near Pearl Harbor - the spot forever associated with America's "day of infamy" - are giving it only tepid applause. Indeed, many wonder why the film - a love story about fly boys that spans from the war in Europe to James Doolittle's raid on Tokyo in 1942 - is even named "Pearl Harbor."

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Some of the local reaction is downright harsh. The Honolulu Weekly, in its review, carried the headline: "The tedious 'Pearl Harbor' yawns its way into film infamy." A moviegoer standing outside Honolulu's Waikiki Theater, putting on his critic's hat, said "Pearl Harbor" did not match the "local Hawaiian feel" achieved in some other World War II movies, such as 1953's "From Here to Eternity."

One reason for the somewhat ho-hum response may be that the legacy of Pearl Harbor was already much-discussed here as recently as 1991, during the 50th anniversary memorial of the Japanese attack. Veterans groups, local Japanese ethnic coalitions, and historians debated the treatment of Japanese-Americans during the war, whether Washington knew in advance of the attack, and whether Pearl's commander in 1941, Admiral Kimmel, was negligent.

Still, those who serve now in the US armed services see redeeming value in "Pearl Harbor" - particularly in its balanced portrayal of war and its ability to reach across the generations.

"I don't think I could get my 18-year-old daughter to watch a documentary on 'Pearl Harbor,' but I could get her to a movie with a historical setting," says Cmdr. Bruce Cole, responsible for the interface between Disney and the Navy.

The Pacific military commander, Adm. Dennis Blair, has sought to raise the "Pearl Harbor" event above its Hollywood moorings. From his command post atop a hill overlooking the panoramic harbor, Admiral Blair says he has always been bothered that so much attention was paid to the failure of the fleet on Dec. 7 and not to how quickly US military responded.

"Pearl was our worst defeat ever, and the battle of Midway was our greatest victory. And there were only seven months between the two events. We didn't build any new ships between Pearl and Midway, and we sank four Japanese carriers with the forces that were left in the Pacific fleet."

Blair says he hopes the picture will join a genre of recent Hollywood films that portray a more realistic picture of war. "When I was first growing up, war movies were always the John Wayne and Audie Murphy type: War is great. During my formative years, the Vietnam period, you had films like 'Full Metal Jacket' and 'Deer Hunter.' In those films, war is depicted as pointless, dehumanizing people, and turning them into animals.

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"But now you see a new type, such as 'Thin Red Line' and 'Saving Private Ryan.' In those representations, you find a more balanced realization: War is awful, but it can have a purpose, and it does make a difference in history and in our country's interests."

For Akita Turawa, a concierge at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, the movie did made a difference. The Japanese citizen shyly admitted to seeing the film. "I cried. It was the love story, and I cried when it was over."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor