Classic Films for Commemorating Pearl Harbor and a Nation at War During Christmas


Today we commemorate “Pearl Harbor Day.” Sixty-nine years ago, “Battleship Row,” in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, was attacked with vehement force and incomprehensible destruction by the Imperial Japanese Navy. The next day, in his address to Congress and an anxious nation, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called December 7, 1941 “a date which will live in infamy.” And thus we were drawn into fatal conflict with Japan, and soon after, with Germany.

And it is fitting that we should remember America’s war effort, even during this Christmas season.

  • It was during this season that the United States entered the war with Japan, in direct response to the attack on Pearl Harbor.
  • American service men and women engaged the enemy for several consecutive Christmases during World War II.
  • Notable events of the Second War happened during the Christmas season.
  • Today, the United States is engaged in war in the Middle East, and many American men and women will be far from home at Christmas, while others prepare to be deployed.

Film provides us with a unique way to remember. Here is a list of a few films that recall Pearl Harbor and Christmas during wartime:

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

This is the classic reenactment of events during the attack on Pearl Harbor. It re-tells what happened, from both the American and the Japanese perspectives.

Pearl Harbor (2001)

Two boyhood friends, Navy pilots stationed at Pearl Harbor, endure the trauma of the attack.

Joyeux Noël (2005)

I first recommended this film last year. It recalls a most unusual Christmas eve encounter—called “the Christmas Truce”on the World War I German front, between the Germans on the one side and the French and Scottish forces on the other. Joyeux Noël is on my list of movies to see again each Christmas season.

For other posts I’ve written about this film, see Favorite Christmas Movie for 2009 and Joyeux Noël: A Film Discussion Guide.

Stalag 17 (1953)

This may seem an odd entry. First, Christmas plays an understated role in the film. Second, this is a Billy Wilder comedy. Third, it is an older movie, filmed in black and white. But in its defense, note that Stalag 17 was one of the first films to join laughter with the ignominy of war. In it we observe a group of men courageously, though often raucously, making the best of a bad situation. Yes, there is comedy, some of it (okay, much of it) silly. This is, after all, a Billy Wilder product. But there also is pathos and suspense.

On close inspection, many people today, with no war experience at all, can relate to the diverse feelings exhibited by these men, feelings that are compounded during the holidays. Loneliness. Unrequited love. Disillusionment. Alienation.

Wilder was an intelligent director. He was interested in far more than the easy laugh. You see this in Stalag 17 when you pay close attention. Grown men revert to childishness to comfort themselves. They are resourceful, both at play and in the attempt to re-gain their freedom. Group dynamics are explored with sensitivity to how leadership and courage are perceived by others, what happens when the wrong person is blamed for serious misconduct, how trust is built up, then dissolved, and what people are willing to sacrifice for the good of others.

Stalag 17 stars William Holden, Otto Preminger, and Peter Graves (of the original Mission Impossible TV series). The movie was the “inspiration” for the TV series Hogan’s Heroe’s, which even “borrowed” the Sergeant Schultz character.

I saw this movie for the first time last night, and I recommend it.

Recommended links related to the attack on Pearl Harbor:

Links related to Christmas during World War I and World War II:

Do you have a movie to recommend that fits the category of this post? Of so, please let us know in the comment box.

The movies mentioned here:

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Legends of the Fall: A Discussion Guide


Legends of the Fall (USA, 1994); directed by Edward Zwick

Chapter 4 of my book, Faith, Film and Philosophy, is titled “Defining Love through the Eye of the Lens: Romance, Sex, and the Human Condition in Pretty Woman, Legends of the Fall, and The Bridges of Madison County.” The author is Greg Jesson. Here are discussion questions for the film Legends of the Fall that I’ve used in conjunction with his chapter.

  1. A native American named Stab, an elder of the Cree Nation, narrates the beginning of the film. How would you explain the director’s choice in beginning the film this way?
  2. In a letter to his mother, Alfred writes, “I pray every night for the grace to forgive Tristan.” Do you agree that Tristan has sinned against his brother, Alfred? Explain your answer. Does Alfred ever forgive Tristan? Why or why not? If you believe he doesn’t, what would it have taken for him to forgive Tristan?
  3. When visited by a committee of citizens who want Alfred to be elected to Congress, he shouts at them, “What do you want for yourselves if you get my son elected?” What does this say about his view of politics? What does it say about his view of people, in general?
  4. Alfred says, in response to his father’s accusation that the U.S. government has yet to regain its wisdom, common sense, and humanity: “I will consider it my absolute duty to bring both wisdom and humanity to the United States Congress.” This may ring a bell. Compare Alfred’s vow with the similar promise made by Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane. How are they alike? Different?
  5. Following his argument with the Colonel, Alfred says, tenderly, “Susanna, you deserve to be happy.” Is this true? What is Alfred’s conception of happiness? How does this compare with your conception of happiness?
  6. Does the Colonel have a favorite son? If so, who is it? What accounts for this? How are the others affected?
  7. What happens when Susanna’s name comes up, after Tristan returns home? Is Susanna over Tristan? Is Tristan over Susanna? What is your evidence?
  8. What do you think of Anthony Hopkins’s performance as a stroke victim? Is his stroke supposed to mean anything that ties into the story line of the film? (Is it symbolic?)
  9. One Stab repeatedly speaks of “the bear inside” of Tristan. What is the point of this metaphor? What does it say about Tristan and One Stab’s evaluation of him as a person?
  10. At a public meeting, Alfred and Tristan meet. Alfred asks, “How’s father? Is he well?” Tristan answers, “As well as can be expected.” What does this mean? What can be expected? Why?
  11. In explanation of the accidental death of Isabel, Alfred says to Tristan, “It was a terrible, tragic, accident.” What does this say about Alfred? Has he changed as a person?
  12. Whose faults are greater? Tristan’s, or Susanna’s? Support your answer.
  13. At Susanna’s grave, Alfred says to Tristan, “I followed all the rules . . . . And you, you followed none of them. And they all loved you more.” What does this say about Alfred’s view of love? What does it say about his view of doing the right thing? Is there a sense in which he isn’t any different than Tristan?
  14. Tristan’s father says to him, “You are not damned, Tristan. I won’t allow that.” Any comments?
  15. How are things resolved in the end? Does this change anything?

Disillusioned Professor Comes to Grips with ‘The Visitor’


He has the perfect name and the ideal job for portraying upper-middle-class disillusionment. Walter Vale is a literature professor at a reputable university in the Northeast. He’s no longer capable of enduring day-to-day encounters with students, and he’s embarked on a sabbatical during which he only pretends to be writing his next book. Will those who see the film The Visitor be able to relate to Walter’s dysphoric existence? Yes, because the role is performed by Richard Jenkins.

“Richard who?” The folks at Back Stage West must have been thinking the same thing. In this week’s issue, Jenelle Riley describes how a “blue-collar actor” like Jenkins (who’s never played a lead role in television or film) can lead in every scene of a low-budget indie film and launch it to nationwide screening. When BSW arrived in today’s mail, I was pleased to see a cover story about this actor, and about this film.

I saw The Visitor when it was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January. I recognized Jenkins, but couldn’t place him. The Riley essay explains why. But I liked him, and I liked this film because of him. He was funny, in that way that only the wearing malaise of life experience can make a thoughtful person funny. When the film ended, writer-director Tom McCarthy fielded questions from the audience. He was good. But Richard Jenkins stole the show.

This film is supposed to be about how injustices can accrue in the treatment of illegal immigrants. It could even be said that The Visitor is making an argument that at least some illegal immigrants should be granted amnesty. Many viewers will find themselves reflecting on this possibility. But the movie is just as much about how a man like Walter can get a new lease of life through his encounter with the unexpected, even if things still don’t turn out the way he would like.

The film begins and ends brilliantly. Walter is a serious man in a serious funk, who teaches us to lighten up a little. The Visitor opens April 11 in a platform release (that is, in a handful of theaters to generate buzz). This is one I’ll be seeing again.

Footnote: You’ll enjoy this film more if you don’t see the trailer first.

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