Notes from a Video Store Burnout

An enlightened trip down the New Release aisle

Over the next two weeks, a number of nonfiction titles will be riding the blockbuster coattails of Jerry Bruckheimer and Michael Bey’s Pearl Harbor onto video store shelves, but if you’re looking for documentary realism before the digital bombs start falling, think again. Which isn’t to say that The Learning Channel’s Pearl Harbor: Seven Views of Defiance, the History Channel’s excellent two-taper Tora, Tora, Tora: The True Story of Pearl Harbor, or even Lt. Comdr. John Ford and Lt. Gregg Toland’s US propaganda piece December 7th (1942) get the basic facts wrong. The lines, however, between fact and fiction are blurred, to varying degrees, in the very images that these films use. The trouble begins with Ford and Toland’s December 7th, commissioned by the government soon after the smoke cleared. Newsreel and Navy cameras were rolling during and after the Japanese attack, but only a few feet of actual footage made it into Ford and Toland’s 82-minute film. (US censors eventually cut it to 34 minutes and then kept it from theaters for fear, ironically enough, that it would inflame domestic resentment against Japanese Americans.) Presented in its entirety on DVD (including a virulently paranoid, anti-Japanese-American prologue featuring Walter Huston as Uncle Sam), December 7th includes dramatic battle footage that Ford shot in 1942 on 20th Century Fox sound stages along with sequences he filmed at the Battle of Midway. The staged scenes are startlingly realistic–including a vivid recreation of black Navy chef Doris Miller’s heroic manning of the USS West Virginia‘s deck gun. Which probably explains why much of it reappears–without attribution–in the cable docs Seven Views of Defiance and, to a lesser extent, Tora, Tora, Tora. Confusing matters further, the producers of Seven Views colorized the actual footage they use. All three films present interesting and detailed accounts of that fateful Sunday morning (with December 7th the most intriguing for the film’s contemporary view, plus the slew of supplementary material included on the DVD, such as Frank Capra’s infamous Know Your Enemy: Japan). What’s most fascinating, however, is to watch all three in order to trace the history of the images themselves, a history of shifting contexts and meaning that will, no doubt, reach something of a climax on May 25 with the release of Pearl Harbor.

Also released this week:VHS: Blue’s Clues: Playtime with Periwinkle; Bongwater, Girls Who Like Girls, Hamlet; Jackie, Ethel Joan: The Kennedy Women; Voyage of the Unicorn.

VHS/DVD: Beautiful Joe, Before Night Falls, Brooklyn Babylon, Croc Files, Diary of a Chambermaid, Homicide the Movie, The Lost Son, Playtime, QB VII, Requiem for a Dream, Tell Me No Lies, Vertical Limit, The Wolves of Kromer.

DVD: The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Catch-22, Chain Reaction (Fox), Big Trouble in Little China special edition (Fox), Hell Is for Heros, Hullabaloo Vols. 5-8, Inbred Rednecks, In Harm’s Way, Into Thin Air: Death on Everest, Music Scene: The Best of 1969-1970 Vol. 2, Out of the Present, Point Break (Fox), Sanjuro, Seven Samurai, Some Like It Hot (MGM), Southern Comfort, Uncommon Valor, Yojimbo.

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