Second Look: “PEARL” (1978)

SECOND LOOK: “PEARL” (1978)

After recently watching the 2001 Michael Bay movie, “PEARL HARBOR”, I decided to watch “PEARL”, the three-part miniseries that aired on ABC back in 1978. Watching it made me realize how many years had passed since I last saw it. 

Directed by Hy Averback and Alexander Singer, and written by Stirling Silliphant; “PEARL” focused upon the experiences and lives of the U.S. military, their families, and some civilians during the few days that surrounded the Japanese Navy’s air attack at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian Islands in December 1941. The miniseries featured a handful of subplots that featured the following cast of characters:

-Midge Forrest, the unhappy and promiscuous wife of a U.S. Army colonel, who is still mourning the death of her only child after many years. 

-U.S. Army officer Colonel Jason Forrest, a strict and bigoted disciplinarian who is despised and feared by the men under his command.

-Wealthy Southern-born U.S. Army Captain Cal Lankford, who is Forrest’s second-in-command and Midge Forrest’s lover.

-Obstetrician Dr. Carol Lang, whose suicidal behavior attracts the attention of Captain Lankford.

-U.S. Navy Lieutenant Junior Grade Doug North, a naval officer and military brat who wants to break family tradition and become a civilian.

-Holly Nagata, a Japanese-American journalist for a small newspaper and past childhood friend of Doug’s, who becomes his new love.

-U.S. Army Private Billy Zylowski, a troublesome soldier and talented painter who falls for an inexperienced prostitute named Shirley.

The subplots in “PEARL” seemed so extensive that I thought it would be best to list some (and I mean a lot) of observations that I made it:

*The pettiness of the peacetime military is revealed in great detail, especially the conflict regarding the unwanted Private Finger and a pinball machine.

*The miniseries also conveyed the intelligence and military establishments’ bigotry toward non-whites on Hawaii in great detail. This was especially apparent in the showdown at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel between Dennis Weaver’s Colonel Forrest and Tiana Alexander’s Holly Nagata, which I found particularly delicious.

*I had forgotten that Adam Arkin, who portrayed Private Zylowski, was in this miniseries. His character is an ex-con who had joined the Army to avoid a prison sentence. He is also supposed to be a first-rate boxer. His character strongly reminds me of a New York version of Montgomery Clift’s character in the 1953 movie, “FROM HERE TO ETERNITY” – especially his relationship with the prostitute Shirley.

*One of my favorite scenes featured Captain Lankford’s success in preventing Dr. Carol Lang from committing suicide. Good acting from both Robert Wagner and Lesley Ann Warren.

*One of the most painful moments I have ever seen in “PEARL” turned out to be the scene in which Doug North meets Holly’s Japanese-born parents and experiences their silent bigotry. Very powerful scene and great acting by Tiana Alexander, Gregg Henry, Seth Sakai and Marik Yamoto.

*Watching Colonel Forrest and the general’s wife (portrayed by Audra Lindley) dance and fail to enjoy themselves was one of the funniest moments in the miniseries.

*“WHO IS THAT ORIENTAL PERSON WHO SPOKE TO YOU?” – The reason I had typed that quote in caps was to hint how loudly Audra Lindley said it to Dennis Weaver’s character. Unforgettable moment.

*I was disappointed to notice that some of the female extras at the Officers’ Ball sequence failed to look as if they had stepped out of a photo circa 1941.

*Some might take this the wrong way, but I am speaking from a cinematic point of view. The scenes featuring the Japanese Zeroes flying over Oahu looked very beautiful to me. However, I suspect the scenes are stock footage from the 1970 movie, “TORA! TORA! TORA!”.

*Due to Angie Dickinson’s superb performance, Midge Forrest’s speech about the travails of Army officer wives was absolutely marvelous. And it was highlighted by two wonderful lines spoken by Midge:

“Jason, I look at you and see 10,000 chairs.”
“You and I have been at war for the past eighteen years.”

*Another memorable scene featured FBI agents’ warning to Mr. Nagata about his pigeons and threat about imprisoning the entire family. Their warning and threat led to a disturbing moment in which Mr. Nagata kills his pigeons with his bare hands.

*Some of the footage showing civilians evacuating their homes looked as if they had been shot in the early 1950s, instead of a decade earlier.

*It is interesting how Colonel Forrest is so obsessed with the idea of a Japanese-American fifth-column on the Hawaiian Islands. According to two historians, the U.S. government harbored a similar obsession that went back several decades.

*The most painful and heart wrenching moment in “PEARL” was featured in a scene in which Holly grieved over Doug’s body, while Carol Lang looked on, crying. Great performances by both Tiana Alexander and Lesley Ann Warren. There was a follow-up in which Holly visited the Norths, Doug’s family, at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Not only was Alexander great in this scene, but also Richard Anderson, Mary Crosby and especially Marion Ross, as Doug’s family.

*In “PEARL”, the U.S. Army seemed to be the major military force for the Hawaiian Islands. But I could have sworn that in real life, the U.S. Navy served that role. Am I wrong . . . or right?

*Dennis Weaver and Robert Wagner have an interesting moment where their characters – Colonel Forrest and Captain Lankford – declare their loathing of each other. But the scene’s pièce de résistance featured Midge’s grand announcement of her intentions to divorce her husband. Her exit proved to be even more spectacular. I felt it was one of Angie Dickinson’s finest moments on screen and she received great support from Dennis Weaver, Robert Wagner and Brian Dennehy.

*Another interesting scene centered on Admiral Nagumo’s (portrayed by actor Sô Yamamura) criticism of his staff for commencing the attack on Pearl Harbor five minutes too early. What the admiral did not realize was that a snafu made by clerks at the Japanese Embassy in Washington D.C. prevented Japan from officially declaring their intentions to the U.S. government on time.

There were many aspects in “PEARL” that strongly reminded me of “FROM HERE TO ETERNITY”. Both productions featured an unhappily married and promiscuous officer’s wife, an Army private that was unpopular with his company’s non-coms and officers, another Army private falling in love with a prostitute and a setting featuring before, during and after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

But there were differences. The U.S. Navy was strongly represented by the character of Lieutenant j.g. Doug North, his father and some of the men under his command. Doug’s romance with the Japanese-American journalist, Holly Nagata, seemed straight from the 1893 short story, “Madame Butterfly”. Whereas the 1953 movie seemed to feature more enlisted men and non-coms, officers also had major roles in the 1978 miniseries.

While many might turn up their noses at the similarities between “PEARL” and “FROM HERE TO ETERNITY”, there is an ironic footnote to this whole situation. About less than a year after “PEARL” aired on television, NBC followed up with its own miniseries adaptation of “FROM HERE TO ETERNITY”.

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