Reel American HistoryHistory on trial Main Page

AboutFilmsFor StudentsFor TeachersBibliographyResources

Films >> Pearl Harbor (2001) >>

Vol. 1 1:51:40 Flying

“’Playing Chicken’” Once Again

By Kathryn Burke, with comment by James (Alec) Murphy

[1] The American pilots taking flight against the Japanese is the climax of not only the attack on Pearl Harbor but also of the film as a whole. Once these pilots respond, the American military is no longer a defenseless victim, attacked painfully and without forewarning by the cunning Japanese. Pearl Harbor is historically accurate in representing the attack by the Japanese as one of total surprise, and the Japanese were able to do major damage before the Americans stationed at Pearl Harbor were capable of responding in any way. However, once Danny and Rafe take flight, pride in American strength and bravery is renewed as the men valiantly take down enemy planes.

[2] As Danny and Rafe prepare to take off, the American pilot taking flight on the runway in front of them is shot down. The danger of their situation is displayed before their eyes in the form of their dead friend and fellow pilot. As Danny’s gaze is locked on this plane going up in flames, Rafe reminds him that he needs him. “Danny, start that thing up and get in the air. I’m not much good without a wing man. I need you!” The events of last night’s encounter at the bar are forgotten once defending their country takes priority. For the first time in this film, the viewer sees that the love triangle between Danny, Rafe, and Evelyn is not Pearl Harbor’s true focus. Here (however briefly), the filmmakers recognize that the true story of Pearl Harbor is about a monumental event in American history. (see comment by James (Alec) Murphy)

[3] As Rafe and Danny take off, Japanese bombs blow up the hangar in which their planes sat seconds earlier. The filmmakers use big special effects to shock audiences, and critics agree that pleasing audiences was clearly a greater concern in making this film than historical accuracy. While the special effects are powerful, it is the sweat, grimaces, and frantic shouts that truly display what things would have been like at Pearl Harbor that day. As Danny and Rafe fly through the sky, every second is tense with their struggle to survive. The director films close shots of both Rafe’s and Danny’s faces as they first become airborne to increase the audience’s connection with the characters. As the Japanese chase Rafe and Danny, the planes are shot coming at the camera, which makes viewers feel as though they are being shot at. Rather than watching this story play out, we become a part of it.

[4] As the two men begin to face opposition, Rafe, who has already engaged in war over in Britain, acts as a guide for Danny, who cries out that he’s not sure if the runway is long enough or if he will be able to clear the buildings. Rafe instructs Danny where to fly in order to confuse the Japanese pilots. This scene solidifies Rafe as the stronger pilot and man, while Danny is simply his “wing man.” Rafe has already braved war and survived, and he will do it again, while Danny, the weaker of the two, will not.

[5] Rafe and Danny decide to “play chicken” with the Japanese, just as they did during practice when they first arrived at Pearl Harbor. By repeating a moment from a scene earlier in the film, the filmmakers are showing that Rafe and Danny’s relationship has gone back to what it once was. While their dispute over Evelyn tore them apart for a time, Danny and Rafe prove that when it truly matters, they will be there for one another. Not unintentionally, Rafe is the one who decides that they will “play chicken” with the Japanese, and he instructs Danny where to fly. Massive explosions are shown as the Japanese planes run into one another; Danny and Rafe’s “game” is a success.

[6] While this scene shows a game, it also shows real history. Ben Affleck’s and Josh Hartnett’s characters are based on two real American pilots, Lieutenants George S. Welch and Kenneth Taylor. They are described as being “very loosely based” upon these men, but the film remains to true their actions on December 7th. Lieutenants Welch and Taylor shot down “seven of the twenty-nine Japanese planes downed that day” (Sullivan). Although much of this scene (and the film in its entirety) is highly dramatized -- we do not know whether the real pilots at Pearl Harbor “played” chicken -- the bravery and military skill of these two men was not exaggerated.

[7] The idea of “playing chicken” is fascinating not only in its significance in regards to Danny and Rafe’s relationship but also in their attitude about the war in general. Danny and Rafe succeed against the Japanese by “playing” a game. Is their experience in the war no different than the games they played in Rafe’s father’s planes as children? I believe that throughout the film Danny and Rafe each acts as if war is just a game, where one can “win” success and accolades. When Rafe first arrives in Britain, he is anxious to fly a plane, but the British commander quickly assures him that fighting very often means death. Similarly, Danny uses a plane to impress Evelyn when he shows her “Pearl Harbor at sunset.” Before they really experience battle, planes are toys for these two men. Danny’s and Rafe’s proudest moment is “playing chicken” against the Japanese. This game is indicative of the film’s attitude of fantasizing war in general.


James (Alec) Murphy

What cannot be stressed enough is that Danny and Rafe truly and only are concerned about their reputation as pilots when the stakes are high. The "playing chicken" scene, where Rafe and Danny outsmart the Japanese with their once playful antics is a rare pugnacious moment in a movie in which they are otherwise objects of a love triangle more so than anything else. As a result, I must I must disagree with the statement made here that for the first time in this film, the viewer sees that the love triangle between Danny, Rafe, and Evelyn is not Pearl Harbor's true focus. While Burke does essentially retract her statement and admit that, however briefly, the filmmakers recognize that the true story of Pearl Harbor is about the monumental event in American History. I think it is important to clarify that this movie is most certainly NOT a movie intended to draw emotions based on war but the emotions of love. We, as the audience, already know what is going to happen in the war, and thus our emotional response to the outrageous demolition of Pearl Harbor is little in comparison to our emotional response of the death of one of the men, Danny, in this love triangle. When you find yourself becoming upset about the loss of one American life and getting excited about the special effects used to display your very own Country's demise, that is a telltale sign of the movie's impetus. It is a love story based around a war, not a story of war with a marginal romantic plotline.