Eagle Squadron, the Movie Pearl Harbor, and the Concept of Historical Fiction
From the movie:
Rafe McCawley is a hotshot pilot in the United States Army Air Forces who can't wait to get into battle in World War II. He volunteers to fight with an American unit in the RAF where he flies his Spitfire with great skill against an unending onslaught of German bombers and fighters (apparently meant to be The Battle of Britain), becoming an ace before he gets shot down.
Not a single pilot in the RAF Eagle Squadrons had prior experience in the American military. Most of them joined Eagle Squadron because they weren't qualified for the USAAF. American officers would never have been "loaned" to the British, and they certainly wouldn't be given a discharge in order to go help out. The U.S. military knew that America would eventually enter the war, so they would not be willing to give up highly trained volunteers.
Rafe is shown flying a Spitfire fighter with squadron marking "RF". The first Spitfires used by Eagle Squadrons went into service in August, 1941, right about the time Rafe supposedly got shot down. Until then, Eagle squadrons flew Hurricanes. The designations for the three Eagle squadrons were "XR" (77th squadron), "AV" (121st squadron), and "MD" (133rd squadron). The designation "RF" was used for an RAF squadron comprised of Polish pilots.
While the movie shows Rafe and his mates responding to air raid sirens and constantly fighting off incoming German planes. The first Eagle squadron did not become operational until just before the end of the Battle of Britain in the fall of 1940. The missions assigned to the squadrons varied widely, including convoy escort, strafing runs into occupied France, and bomber escort.
As quoted in the writeups above, Eagle Squadron pilots accounted for 73 1/2 kills at a cost of 82 pilots lost, which at first glance seems like a poor record. However, many of those men were lost in crashes and collisions in poor weather. Four men of the 133rd Squadron were killed on one horrible day in September, 1942 when the entire squadron was blown off course by strong winds and ran out of fuel. Overall, these squadrons had very good combat records, with the 71st squadron leading all RAF squadrons in enemy aircraft shot down in the months of October and November, 1941.
Rafe McCawley's character may have been partly based on Bill Dunn, a pilot in Eagle Squadron 71 who shot down two Me-109's during a mission on 27 August, 1941 to give him a total of five kills, making him the first American ace of the war. However, Dunn was escorting British bombers on a raid into France, not intercepting German bombers attacking Great Britain as depicted in the movie--and Dunn didn't get shot down.
Yes, I'm one of those people who can't help but point out the stupid and the impossible while I'm watching a movie. Some of this is likely to be a bit nitpicky, but what the heck. It would be easy to pick on the whole Pearl Harbor movie, but I wanted to at least try to limit the scope. My point isn't so much to rip on the movie but to explore the new depths of ignorance we are sinking into. The errors I've pointed out in this movie really aren't all that significant by themselves. What bothers me is that history is becoming just another tool of the entertainment industry, to be altered whenever necessary to make it fit the script, and they figure it's no big deal because no one will know the difference anyway.
Most people these days seem to be incredibly ignorant when it comes to history, especially Americans like me. History classes in schools just seem to gloss over the basics, and most of the students aren't really interested, so we seem to be reaching a point where movies "based" on true stories are nearly all some people know about history. They don't stop to think about whether the movies get the facts straight, I mean, a scriptwriter trying to pen the next blockbuster wouldn't use artistic license to make history into better entertainment now would he? The writer (Randall Wallace) and director (Michael Bay) of Pearl harbor don't exactly have sparkling records when it comes to historical accuracy. This tirade of mine could just as easily have been written in relation to Titanic or Braveheart.
My grandparents worked in a plant that built B-25 Mitchell bombers like those used by Doolittle's Raiders to attack Tokyo. They try hard to keep alive the history they were a part of, but it isn't easy. They are more than eighty years old, and most of their friends and loved ones are gone. They lived through one of the most trying times in the history of the world, a time when all the world was on fire. I think they would feel better if we had learned more from those times then that history can be manipulated to produce three hours of mediocre entertainment with a $9 ticket price. It's not much consolation that the final movie wasn't nearly as bad as Wallace's original script.
Pearl Harbor, Buena Vista Home Video, 2001, written by Randall Wallace, directed by Michael Bay