The Making of the Film "Pearl Harbor"

Japanese Aircraft Once Again Fill the Skies of O'ahu

Pearl Harbor Premiere
Kevin Winter / Getty Images

Almost 59 years after the roar of Japanese planes was heard over the Hawaiian island of O'ahu, "Kate" torpedo bombers, "Val" dive bombers, and "Zero" fighters once again filled the skies in April and May of 1990 as part of the on-location filming for the $140 million Disney and Touchstone romantic drama "Pearl Harbor."

"Pearl Harbor" focuses on the life-changing events surrounding December 7, 1941, and the war's devastating impact on two daring young pilots (Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett) and a beautiful, dedicated nurse (Kate Beckinsale). It is a tale of catastrophic defeat, heroic victory, personal courage and overwhelming love set against a stunning backdrop of spectacular wartime action.

Following a formula which was so successful with the 1997 film "Titanic," "Pearl Harbor" sets a romantic personal story within a historic event of great tragedy and loss. Producer Bruckheimer and the writers of the screenplay claim to have made every effort to ensure the accuracy of the historical information depicted in the film. Historians, military personnel, and survivors in both the United States and Japan were consulted in virtually every aspect of the story.

Remembering Pearl Harbor

In proper respect for the servicemen who died in the attack, both the crew and stars of the film gathered at the Arizona Memorial on Sunday, April 2, 2000, for a special ceremony honoring the victims of the Pearl Harbor attack. Three wreaths—from Touchstone Pictures, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and director Michael Bay—were dropped into Pearl Harbor's still-oily water to honor the memory of those who gave their lives.

A subsequent news conference included filmmakers, representatives of the United States Navy, and former Hawaii Governor Benjamin Cayetano. In an interview with the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, Cayetano expressed his belief that the film would bolster the state's economy and promote Hawaii to the world. He indicated, however, that the film's main attribute is education. "There are too many generations of Americans who don't know the Pearl Harbor story." he said, "This movie will help this generation and generations to come."

The film, however, is not without its critics, who claim that historical inaccuracies were clearly evident during the filming in Hawaii. Criticisms range from the color of camouflage and paint on airplanes, ground vehicles, and ships to the dilapidated look of what is portrayed as Wheeler Field (when in reality much of the facilities in the Pearl Harbor area were brand new in 1941). It should be noted, however, that in any effort to depict an era and an event that occurred nearly 60 years before, complete accuracy is often neither affordable nor possible.

Filming Locations and Production

World War II vintage aircraft were collected from museums and private collections and brought to Hawaii for the filming of the December 7, 1941 attack on the United States Pacific Fleet. Filming was done at several locations on O`ahu including Ford Island, Fort Shafter, Pearl Harbor, and Wheeler Air Force Base. Numerous ships, including the Battleship USS Missouri and frigate Whipple, were used as stand-ins for the actual ships that were attacked and sunk.

The Hawaii portion of the 85-day shooting schedule lasted only about five weeks. However, over 60 local technicians were hired to work on the film alongside about 200 crew from Los Angeles. In addition, over 1,600 military enlistees and dependents were signed on as extras for the Hawaii filming.

Additional filming was completed in England, Los Angeles, and Texas. The filming of the climactic scene of the sinking of the USS Arizona was completed in the same underwater tank owned by Fox studios in Baja, Mexico, where Titanic was filmed. Post-production work continued throughout 2000 and early 2001 with the scoring of the film just concluded in May 2001. A large portion of the film's budget is devoted to over 180 digital effects created by Industrial Light and Magic.

Impact in Hawaii

The world premiere of "Pearl Harbor" took place on May 21, 2001, in Pearl Harbor aboard the deck of the nuclear aircraft carrier, the USS John C. Stennis. It was billed as the largest premiere in motion picture history, with over 2,000 guests, including the film's principal actors, production staff, media, veterans, and invited friends and industry professionals. The $5 million premiere was broadcast live on the Internet by Disney with a special 360-degree camera.

Only time and the opinion of the viewing public will determine whether "Pearl Harbor" will be remembered for its depiction of the event that launched the United States into World War II, for its big-budget special effects created by George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic, or for its love story featuring several of Hollywood's best young actors. The film will, no doubt, spur interest and attendance at the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor and likely be responsible for additional tourist dollars into the Hawaiian economy.

For additional background information on the history of Pearl Harbor, we suggest that you read our two-part feature entitled, "Lest We Forget." For those planning a visit to Pearl Harbor and the Arizona Memorial, our feature "Visiting Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial" can help you plan your visit to this historic site.