December 7th
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During World War II, director John Ford joined the ranks of the many Hollywood actors and filmmakers who participated in the war effort. Like Frank Capra and John Huston, Ford was enlisted by the War Department to produce war-time films to help spread information/propaganda about what was happening at the war front.

One of Ford's most famous efforts, December 7th, which won a Best Documentary Short Subjects Academy Award in 1943, was difficult if not altogether impossible to see in its original form for nearly half a century. In 1991, however, the War Department opened their vaults and allowed the complete version to be screened, and now, thanks to VCI Entertainment, December 7th is available on DVD, on a disc loaded with extras.

The movie isn't exactly a major addition to the Ford canon. It doesn't fit in with the rest of his career, but it's a fascinating sidelight nonetheless. This restored version from VCI contains over 40 minutes of footage cut from the movie at the request of the War Department. In addition, the disc is stocked with newsreels and shorts, including a Frank Capra-produced documentary called "Know Your Enemy: Japan."

It's not hard to see why the War Department had second thoughts when they saw the completed December 7th. The movie is anything but conventional war-time propaganda. As indicated by a letter signed by Secretary of War Henry Stevenson, the War Department wanted a movie that would "factually" show "the condition existing in Hawaii prior to December 7th, the story of the Japanese Attack there on December 7th, and the present conditions in Hawaii as they pertain to preparations for future action." December 7th meets this criteria, but not in a way that the War Department could have imagined.

It's the movie's long first section that caused most of the problems. It takes the form of a discussion between Uncle Sam (Walter Huston), who is vacationing in Hawaii, and Mr. C (that's "C" for "conscience") as they talk about the large Japanese population in Hawaii. Uncle Sam paints a picture of Honolulu as a "modern, up-to-date city" that was created in large part by the cooperation of Japanese laborers. He talks about their loyalty to America. As an example, we see the chairman of a Japanese-Hawaiian citizen group say, "We were born here. Our homes, our friends, our industries, our future, are all deeply bound up with this native land of ours. We realize how fortunate we are to be living in this of all the lands of the earth, and we cherish our heritage as Americans."

Mr. C (Harry Davenport) quickly retorts by emphasizing how Japanese-Hawaiians have hung onto their dual citizenship, their native customs, their language, and their religion--suggesting that their allegiances are pulled in two directions, with their American allegiances running relatively shallow.

This contrasting portrait of the Japanese-Hawaiians can hardly be what the War Department had in mind when they entrusted this project to Ford. Good propaganda doesn't paint a complex picture. Good propaganda tends to reduce conflicts to their most simplistic terms. And good propaganda doesn't instill doubts. The War Department voiced their concerns and Ford responded by loping off the entire first section of the movie--nearly half of the movie's 82-minute running time.

The edited version starts on the morning of December 7th, as the island of Oahu begins to wake and start a new day. And soon afterwards, the narrator tells us, "All hell broke loose. Man-made hell. Made in Japan." The following footage masterfully mixes newsreel and recreations. The model work depicting the devastation in Pearl Harbor is outstanding. It's so good that many people won't even realize that they're watching model ships and back-screen projections. Ford also deleted the final sequence, nearly four minutes in duration, which shows Dana Andrews as a sailor walking through a national cemetery and arguing that common sense will prevail.

Only one lone camera shot of Uncle Sam survives in the edited version: he lies asleep, tired of wrangling with his conscience. But because he doesn't reappear after the Pearl Harbor attack, the movie lacks a wrap-up--in which he would face his own responsibility for the attack. Strangely, however, the movie never returns to the issues raised in the movie's first section. As a result, the complete version of December 7th is a broken-backed, disjointed affair that is only intermittently effective. Its best, most-creative sequence survives in the edited version: it shows a selection of soldiers who died during the Pearl Harbor attack and introduces us to their parents and families. It's a poignant sequence that emphasizes the importance of the soldiers who served our country.

The edited version of December 7th is much more focused and cohesive that the complete version. It completely discards the clumsy symbolic characters and awkward dialogue sequences in favor of a more conventional documentary approach.

According to Scott Eyman's Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford, Gregg Toland actually directed December 7th. John Ford likely set up the production and then turned over the actual filming to Toland, a superb cinematographer who had photographed Citizen Kane and The Grapes of Wrath. Not surprisingly then, December 7th is filled with striking visual compositions and unusual camera angles.

Ford likely realized that even if Toland's film wouldn't be released in its original form it nonetheless deserved to be preserved. Therefore he wrote a letter to the Bureau of Archives, asking that the complete version of December 7th be archived. As a result, Toland's version survived and can now be viewed on VCI Entertainment's DVD.

VCI's disc is an amazing amalgam of materials--including Universal and Movietone newsreels, audio commentary during the feature by four survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack, Frank Capra's "Know Your Enemy: Japan," and an excerpt from a Japan newscast reporting the debut screening in Japan of December 7th.

Even while the disc contains a generous selection of extras, the disc would definitely benefit from one additional extra: information about the two versions of the movie and the events that led John Ford to chop huge sections out of the full-length version. The DVD's back cover promises that you'll "learn the inside story on how the un-cut version of December 7th was made and why the U.S. Government kept it classified and away from public view for decades." But you'll find precious little information of this variety on the disc. Five minutes of footage from a Japanese newscast touches this concern--but just barely and with as much depth as you might expect from Entertainment Tonight.

The back cover also lists a very deceptive total running time--"approx. 3 hours, 26 min." That claim is completely false. A recent edition of the VCI Video Gazette lists a more accurate (but still incorrect) total running time of 84 minutes for the feature and 76 minutes for the bonus material. But according to the time display on my DVD player, the feature is a few seconds short of 82 minutes and the extras total a few seconds over 87 minutes (for a total of 2 hours 49 minutes). I suppose they got the inflated total running time by double counting the "censored version" (once as part of the complete version and again as the edited version). But this is bad math because the edited version of December 7th included on this disc is simply embedded as part of the complete version--with on-screen text indicating where the "censored" version begins and stops. It definitely hasn't been included separately (although a chapter stop will let you jump directly to the beginning of the embedded "censored" version).

This disc would also greatly benefit from a revised menu system. As is, everything on the disc is merely tagged together, one after the next. So when you hit the play button, you start playing the 87 minutes of supplementary materials, and after the supplements are exhausted, the feature film finally starts. You can also start the feature by paging through three pages of chapter selections and selecting Chapter 13. This is an awkward system that I hope I never encounter again. On a disc with nearly three hours of materials, it's important to allow viewers to easily select those materials that they most want to watch. A conventional menu system--with a separate supplementary section and a start button that actually starts the feature--would have been greatly appreciated.

It's important to keep in mind, however, that the problems noted in the previous paragraphs are the result of VCI generously attempting to provide this DVD package with an impressive collection of extras. They could have been stingy and just included the complete version of December 7th and nothing else. So they deserve some accolades for putting together a strong set of extras that help place December 7th within an historical context. But frankly, I would have gladly traded all the extras for an in-depth piece of research that delivered on the DVD cover's promise of explaining how the "un-cut" version of December 7th was made and the subsequent editing that reduced the movie to less than half of its original length.


December 7th--The Pearl Harbor Story is now available on DVD from VCI Entertainment. The disc features several special features, including a Universal Newsreel (with the first films of Pearl Harbor); MovietoneNews Extra! (the first actual battle films); an excerpt from a Japanese telecast reporting the debut screening in Japan of December 7th; full commentary by four Pearl Harbor survivors; and Frank Capra's 62-minute-long documentary "Know Your Enemy: Japan" (1945). Suggested retail price: $19.99. For more information, check out the VCI Entertainment Web site.