No one goes to watch a Michael Bay movie expecting historical accuracy. But the chasm between Pearl Harbor the movie and real Pearl Harbor facts, as shown in photos from December 7, 1941, is clear. The film contains an armada-sized number of errors about the military, including the wrong planes, nuclear-powered subs before the advent of nuclear power, and magical 21st-century radio technology.
And then there are all the plot holes, like how Ben Affleck broke US law by joining the Royal Air Force (RAF), and how the movie claims the climactic scene was the turning point in a months-old war that continued for several more years. Plus, the movie ignores 1940s racism while treating Cuba Gooding Jr.'s character as a token, and neglects many WWII contributions from women. In contrast, consider films like Saving Private Ryan, which was so realistic, it reportedly triggered veterans' PTSD.
While historians have found numerous historical inaccuracies in Pearl Harbor, at least one thinks some good may come from the movie. Professor Bruce Reynolds said, "The best thing that could happen is that people will see it, be entertained, and come away interested in why this stuff happened."
Another history professor, Nicholas Evan Sarantakes, had a slightly less optimistic take: "Another Pearl Harbor movie will come along sooner or later, and it will most likely be better." Fans of Michael Bay movies might still appreciate the film for its drama or special effects, but it's time to admit Pearl Harbor barely gets any history correct.
In 1941, before America joined World War II, Rafe McCawley (Ben Affleck) tells his best friend about his official assignment with the RAF Eagle Squadron. The movie gets this one partially correct: The RAF Eagle Squadrons comprised Americans who wanted to fight for Britain, with nearly 7,000 men volunteering before the Pearl Harbor attack.
However, it was illegal for American citizens to fight for another country while the US remained neutral, on penalty of losing their citizenship. No one would have "ordered" McCawley to join the RAF; he most likely would have had to cross into Canada to join the Royal Canadian Air Force. The plot hole doesn't stop there - while in the RAF's squadron for Americans, McCawley appears as the only American.
Pearl Harbor gets 1940s radio technology completely wrong. As Doolittle's (Alec Baldwin) raiders fly off toward Tokyo, a nervous Evelyn Johnson (Kate Beckinsale) listens back in Hawaii, eavesdropping on their conversation.
To start, a sneak attack would always observe radio silence, meaning there was likely nothing to hear in the first place. In addition, the planes would have used radios intended only for interplane communication - they were short-range units. Over a thousand miles away in Hawaii, no one could have heard anything on this frequency. And for a kicker, 1940s long-range communication routinely used Morse code, as long-distance voice communication wasn't possible at the time.
In Pearl Harbor, Rafe McCawley and Evelyn Johnson float past the Queen Mary, an enormous British ship built in 1936. The film shows the Queen Mary in its traditional red, white, and black paint job, but it really had gray paint at that time.
During the war, the Queen Mary transported soldiers on long sea voyages, even traveling to Australia in 1940. The gray color helped camouflage ships, and later, as American soldiers took the vessel across the Atlantic to Europe, they nicknamed it the "Grey Ghost." During the scene, America was not yet at war, but Britain had already been fighting the Nazis for two years by 1941.
Pearl Harbor plays fast and loose with the boundaries between military units. For example, Rafe McCawley - an Army Air Force pilot - goes to a Navy hospital for his physical. And he seems to easily move over to the RAF, fighting for Britain, and then returns to the Air Force after his crash landing with little explanation.
Perhaps most confusingly, from the perspective of veterans and military historians, the movie sets up McCawley and Danny Walker (Josh Hartnett) as fighter pilots. Yet when Doolittle plans his bombing run, they're bomber pilots, a completely different role.