Medal of Honor Recipients/Nominees Portrayed On Film


Hollywood Abominations


Pearl Harbor (2001)


This movie was very painful to suffer through, and it qualifies under the Hollywood Abominations category on at least two counts. It portrays one real-life Medal of Honor recipient during the action for which he received it, and it is clear that most of the supposed actions of the two fictional main characters were based on those of another real-life Medal of Honor nominee whose nomination was rejected for clearly petty political reasons. The actions of these real-life men were depicted in other older but still far more superior films which are covered in separate pages on this website. All that notwithstanding, there are other serious historical and technical flaws which make the situations of the fictionalized characters, and other portions of this film, completely impossible. Unfortunately, the unenlightened masses lined up to see this turkey are completely oblivious to these-- in the humble opinion of the authors-- fatal flaws.


Alec Baldwin's portrayal of Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle during his Medal of Honor-earning raid on Tokyo is the first of these offenses. It is still necessary, however, to point out that just about everyone who ever knew Jimmy Doolittle and has seen this film agrees that he was nothing like the foul-mouthed, arrogant, condescending egotist depicted by Baldwin; for all his accomplishments as a record-setting pilot and the public adulation he was given, before the raid as the foremost aviation pioneer of his era and then for his heroism and rise in rank and command after the raid, Jimmy Doolittle was the very model of humility and self-deprecation. (He lived to the ripe old age of 96 and has been dead for less than 8 years as of the release of this movie, so his memory is still fresh in many minds. Alec Baldwin should consider himself lucky that the family and associates of the late General Doolittle are of the character that they would not visit upon him the same kind of mob wrath that he once publicly called for upon independent counsel Kenneth Starr!) Also, contrary to the depictions of this movie, Jimmy Doolittle was not an operational fighter squadron commander at Mitchell Field, New York in January 1941; his expertise and education were too valuable and he was assigned to Air Force headquarters on a number of special projects prior to the Tokyo raid. (His command of the 17th Bombardment Group was provisional for the purposes of the raid only.)


The real abomination, though, is the way the acts of heroism of Lieutenants George S. Welch and Kenneth M. Taylor were fictionalized and then distorted into the juvenile cartoon-like heroics of this movie (which also closely resembles that in NBC-TV's depiction of Gregory Boyington and his Black Sheep Squadron). This movie is to Tora! Tora! Tora! what Titanic was to A Night to Remember-- a retelling of the same basic historical event with a lot more flash and special effects but sacrificing historical accuracy for the sake of a sappy fictional romantic triangle.


We stopped counting the technical and historical errors after the first thirty minutes of the movie, and are going to focus only on those which render the characters and storyline impossible. Never mind why Army Air Force fighter pilots were having their physical exams done by Navy medical personnel. There is no way that someone with the severe visual directionality perceptual impairment that Ben Affleck's character is supposed to have had would have been commissioned as an officer, let alone graduated from pilot training. How could he safely read an altimeter if he couldn't tell 6 from 9? Forget the stories you might have heard that General George S. Patton had the same disorder; he had obviously conquered this impairment by the time he graduated from West Point. (The popular layman's term for this impairment is dyslexia, but that's just a general term for the inability to read; we wish to point out that author Lyle F. Padilla is a school psychologist in his civilian career and this is his area of professional expertise.) Same for the severe stutter that one of the other fighter pilot characters had; he probably would have been rejected for any type of military service, let alone as a commissioned fighter pilot. The way he reacts to the attack later in the film, failing to give out a cry of alarm, which failure could have gotten everyone killed, is disgustingly played for infantile laughs but is a perfect example of why such disabilities are cause for disqualification, but not a source of amusement.


The American Eagle Squadrons of the British Royal Air Force did not recruit active duty commissioned pilots from the US Army as they were supposed to have with Affleck's character; they were recruited from the civilian population (although most had some flying experience, and many had washed out from US Army or Navy flight school) and trained to fly in Canada. [On the other hand, General Claire Chennault's American Volunteer Group of the Chinese Air Force, aka the Flying Tigers, was an actual US Government-sanctioned covert operation which did recruit experienced fighter pilots from the US Army, Navy and Marine Corps, but did not become operational until three weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.] Further, the Eagle Squadrons remained in British uniform until late 1942 and then were transferred to the US Army Air Force as a unit which was redesignated the 4th Fighter Group, which eventually evolved to the present day 4th Fighter Wing of the USAF. [Author Ray Castagnaro flew with the 4th Wing for four years in the 1980s and spent many hours in the Wing history archives, painstakingly researching his newly-published novel, in which the creation and evolution of the Eagle Squadrons into the famed "4th but First" Wing plays a pivotal role. During this period, he became a sort of unofficial wing historian and was recognized as such by the Wing Commander.] Unless he was physically unfit for any further military duty, a member of the Eagle Squadron would not have been released from the RAF. It would have been quite impossible for him to have been reassigned "back" to the US Army in Hawaii in December 1941.


The unenlightened viewer may be dazzled by the computer-generated imagery of the aerial combat both over Pearl Harbor and with Affleck's character over the English Channel earlier in the film, but this is only further confirmation of what the authors have long asserted: that nobody in Hollywood knows what a real dogfight looks like, let alone has any concept of the fundamentals of basic fighter maneuvering. By using flash cuts and whip-panning in a patchwork of incoherent scenes, they've managed to bamboozle the unenlightened audience into believing they're watching an accurate depiction of aerial combat, based in the filmmakers' own ignorant beliefs that a dogfight consists of nothing but zipping across the sky in straight lines at top speed with an occasional zig-zag, and trying to line up directly behind your target in a tail chase. This movie is another giant step down the primrose path which George Lucas started the world's movie-viewing public with the first Star Wars movie in 1977; the authors distinctly remember the documentary on the making of that movie, in which Lucas patted himself on the back for patterning his battle scenes after what he claimed to be the most realistic dogfight scenes ever filmed, and at the same time in the documentary intercutting his scenes with those from A Yank in the RAF which were absolutely the phoniest looking flying scenes ever filmed! Take the word of two old former F-4 Phantom jocks: the last movie ever made that accurately showed what aerial combat looks like was The Blue Max back in 1966, around the time most of the producers and directors who presently control the Hollywood studios were born.


[But, we hear some of you ask, wasn't The Blue Max about biplanes and triplanes in World War I? That's exactly our point! These FX wizards in today's movie industry don't realize that fighter planes in every war still loop and turn and barrel roll in a graceful aerial ballet like they did in The Blue Max, and one of the saddest ironies is that, cinematographically, they're missing the beauty of it! A P-40 Kittyhawk fighting a Zero over Pearl Harbor looks pretty much the same as a Sopwith Camel fighting a Fokker Triplane over the trenches of WWI. So does a P-51 Mustang fighting an FW-190 over Berlin, an F-86 Sabrejet fighting a MIG-15 over Korea, an F-4 Phantom fighting a MIG-21 over Hanoi, and an F-15 Eagle fighting a MIG-29 over Baghdad.]


We don't have the time to teach you a full course in Basic Fighter Maneuvers, but suffice it to say that the silly trick that Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett supposedly pulled off over Pearl Harbor, playing "chicken" with each other with hordes of Zeros on their tails, pulling off in a tight turn and suckering their pursuers into ramming into each other head-on, is extremely improbable if not impossible. In the first place, if the two of them had stayed straight and level as long as they needed to in order to start their game of "chicken", they would have been blown away as easy meat for their pursuers. Even overlooking that fact, if a pursuing fighter is trying to maintain a guns-tracking index on his target which then goes into a sudden hard turn, the pursuing fighter will instinctively try to stay inside the target's turn. The pursuer will do this automatically and reflexively by either by pulling a tighter pure-pursuit turn to maintain the tracking index, or by pulling upward in a high yo-yo or quarter-plane maneuver for more turning room, therefore missing another fighter doing a symmetrical move from the opposite direction. If that's too complicated for you to understand, let's just say that it didn't happen over Hawaii on December 7, 1941, and we've never heard of it happening any place else in 87 years of aerial warfare. [Real fighter pukes out there, please feel free to weigh in on this one, by emailing to]


The sequence in Tora! Tora! Tora! which depicted Welch's and Taylor's actual interception of the attacking Japanese waves, while still not perfect or up to par with The Blue Max, was several notches above the sequences of Affleck's and Hartnett's characters in this movie. Tora! Tora! Tora! used real airplanes instead of the clueless fantasies of some computer cartoonists reveling in their own hype.


As for the final sequence depicting Doolittle's Raid, the authors can appreciate the use of dramatic license to enhance basic history (and have done so ourselves in some of our respective unpublished fictional writings), but not to the extent of compromising that basic history or creating an impossible situation. Once again, it would have been impossible for four fighter pilots, let alone those from Wheeler Field, to have participated in that raid, let alone be crewed together as two pairs of aircraft commanders and co-pilots. In the first place, the 17th Bombardment Group was selected for the mission because it was the first unit to become operational with the B-25 Mitchell and therefore they were the most experienced B-25 crews in the entire Air Force; they had been flying the B-25 for a year and were the only ones proficient enough to attempt to take off from an aircraft carrier. The four months between December 7, 1941 and April 18, 1942 would have been just barely enough time for a P-40 pilot to retrain to a level of basic operational proficiency in the B-25, and nowhere near enough time to attain the proficiency to even start practicing the short-distance fully-loaded takeoffs. In the second place, there is no way that any surviving combat-ready fighter pilot would have been released from Wheeler Field in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor (unless his visual perceptual impairment or stuttering were finally found out!). Think about it: nobody knew that the Japanese weren't planning to come back to Hawaii, and everyone assumed that an actual land invasion was imminent. George Welch and Ken Taylor stayed at Wheeler for several months before being transferred; Welch's next three kills didn't happen until the exact first anniversary of the Day of Infamy.


Another inaccuracy worth mentioning about this depiction of the Doolittle Raid (which was correctly depicted in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo) is the way all 16 B-25s were shown attacking Tokyo in a tight formation; in the first place, because of the tight fuel limitations which were further compounded by their forced premature launch, they did not have the time or the fuel to circle and form up; they went in single-ship. In the second place, they fanned out and attacked targets spread out across Tokyo and four other cities on the Japanese mainland.


The one thing we can say for this movie is that it helps both Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and Tora! Tora! Tora! stand out as the great enduring classical films they remain today, 57 and 31 years after their respective releases. [We also find it incredibly ironic that this disappointing and over-hyped film was released approximately the same number of years after Tora! Tora! Tora! as Tora! Tora! Tora! was after the actual bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hickam and Wheeler Fields. Perhaps in another 30 years or so someone will get back to basics and do the heroes of December 7, 1941 some justice. More likely, an even worse film will be made!] And we can only hold the forlorn hope that in the fallout from all the hype from this turkey, perhaps some renewed public interest in the real-life heroism of George Welch and Ken Taylor might be sparked, and give them their long-overdue recognition.



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