Even with its lack of dramatic tension and its surplus of wooden, two-dimensional characters, the film Tora! Tora! Tora! was reasonably accurate in its portrayal of the 7 December 1941 Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. To be sure, the film did contain some minor historical errors. For example, in the first shot of Washington, D.C., from the air, probably set sometime in 1941, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History is clearly visible, even though it did not open until 1964. During the launch sequence, the slant deck of the USS Yorktown (CV-10) is clearly masquerading as the flight decks of the Japanese carriers. And in scenes from the Japanese side, the film dates the attack on Hawaii as 7 December, although the calendar on board the Japanese ships should have read 8 December.
Despite the fact that the filmmakers based their story research on the works of two highly respected authors - Ladislas Farago and his The Broken Seal and Gordon Prange's Tora! Tora! Tora! much of the dialog on both sides came from the screenwriter's mind rather than from the mouths of the characters being portrayed. Prange's book had become a best-seller in Japan after it appeared in 1966. While not published in the United States, it served as the basis for his later studies of Pearl Harbor, which his associates published after his death. The film Tora! Tora! Tora! did present the contemporary interpretation of the events leading up to 7 December, and it did not seem to exceed the limits of dramatic license in any significant way. As a result, few people questioned the veracity of Admiral lsoroku Yamamoto's cinematic comment after receiving word of the success of the attack: "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve."
Certainly, Randall Wallace, the screenwriter of the 2001 film, Pearl Harbor, accepted the validity of the quote. Not only that, he had Yamamoto utter those words on board one of the carriers in the attacking task force, even though the Admiral actually was on board his flagship anchored at a naval base in Japan. Like Tora! Tora! Tora!, Pearl Harbor also gets the date wrong, with a Japanese officer pulling a page from a calendar to reveal "December 7" as the attack is about to begin. Perhaps because the more recent production contained so little truth overall, people began to doubt anything that appeared on the screen, including Yamamoto's quote.
Indeed, the Admiral must have held such sentiments, and Tora! Tora! Tora! made it clear that he recognized the improbability of defeating the United States in a protracted war. But no evidence exists that Yamamoto ever spoke the words attributed to him. Whence, then, did the quote come?
When the validity of the sentence was challenged after it appeared in Pearl Harbor, Tora! Tora! Tora! Director Richard Fleischer wrote to The Los Angeles Times, denying the words "were an invention." He wrote, "I wish we could take credit for that line, but those words are Yamamoto's." What was his source? He wrote to me that "everyone seems to be a little bit right about it. I was told, as I remember Elmo Williams telling me, that they were Yamamoto's words, but he never actually spoke them. They are from his diary." But according to Donald Goldstein, one of Prange's associates, Yamamoto never had a diary.
What did Elmo Williams, the producer along with Richard Zanuck, have to say? Williams wrote to me that, in 1943, Yamamoto wrote a letter containing the quote to the Admiralty in Tokyo from the South Pacific, where he was conducting a tour of Japanese bases. Williams said that during research in Japan, Larry Forrester, the screenwriter for Tora! Tora! Tora!, found the letter in a file of Yamamoto's memoirs, which he borrowed. Williams advised another journalist, however, that he no longer had the letter. (In fact, the producer told me during an interview in 1974 that when he could not get a tax credit for his papers, he destroyed them.)
Goldstein says Prange never could find a record of the quote, and none of the Japanese officers he had interviewed ever had heard it. Thus, Prange tried with no success-to persuade the filmmakers not to include the comment in the film.
Yamamoto's cinematic quote did provide a dramatic ending to Tora! Tora! Tora!, but it serves as a much more dubious example of how Hollywood creates myths - rather than respecting historical research conducted by the likes of Prange and his associates - that become validated through repetition. The quote stands as a quintessential example of the danger in using motion pictures to teach history.