How USC’s Pearl Harbor newsreel shaped the way Americans perceive event

COLUMBIA, S.C. —On the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, that black-and-white film footage you’re seeing of it is from a Movietone newsreel that’s part of the collection at the University of South Carolina. 20th Century Fox donated to USC its Movietone news films from 1919 to 1934 and from 1942 to 1944.

USC now has about 11 million feet of Movietone film, roughly 2,000 hours worth, in a vault that’s part of its Moving Image Research Collections.

While just about everyone has seen that footage, which shows U.S. Navy ships burning in Pearl Harbor after the Japanese attack, Americans at the time didn’t get to see it for a year.

Greg Wilsbacher, MIRC Curator, says even though Pearl Harbor was a surprise attack, politicians and the military expected war with Japan at some point. Movietone was also expecting something. “They actually placed Al Brick, who was a California-based cameraman, in Hawaii in late March 1941. They were that certain that war with Japan would arrive that they sent one of their best. He was one of their best cameramen. They put him out in the Hawaiian Islands to basically be ready when war broke out,” he says.

He got to Pearl Harbor just after the Japanese planes had left, but while the ships were still burning. The U.S. Navy took his film and held onto it for a year, so even though the American public had heard reports about Pearl Harbor, they saw only a few still photos of it. In December 1942, the Navy released the Movietone footage. Movietone then put together a newsreel titled, “Now It Can Be Shown!” which ran in theaters.

“A newsreel would be shown twice a week. It’d be about 10 minutes. It would run before the feature film. It’s the only way, back in the 1930s and ’40s that people saw the sights and sounds of the world presented to them as news. There was no other way for them to get that, other than a newsreel in the theater,” Wilsbacher says.

He says the newsreel is important not only because it’s some of the only footage that exists of the aftermath of the attack, but because of how it was used.

“This newsreel kind of helps build this narrative that was created throughout 1942, ‘Remember Pearl Harbor! It was a dastardly attack on the U.S., unprovoked.’ And the political scientists and the military historians and people who’ve studied the era have all kind of clearly demonstrated, through lots of evidence, that there was a lot of tension between the United States and Japan and that there was a lot of discussion about when would war occur,” Wilsbacher says.

“As the nation went to war, this newsreel participated in a very powerful narrative of basically, ‘An innocent nation, attacked without cause, and deliberately on a quiet Sunday morning, and that our role now was to get revenge on the Japanese.'”

You can see “Now It Can Be Shown!” here. http://mirc.sc.edu/islandora/object/usc%3A1064