Heading into a war zone 

December 7, 1941. A date that -- according to then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt -- "will live in infamy."

Fifty-nine years ago this week, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched an aerial assault on a strategically important U.S. naval base in the Hawaiian Islands. That attack on "Pearl Harbor" finally compelled the American government to enter World War II. But starting next May, the Walt Disney Co. hopes the name Pearl Harbor will compel you to drop by your local multiplex and/or Disney/MGM Studios.

Disney didn't have a particularly compelling story to tell, or even a script in hand, when it decided to break away from its bread-and-butter -- animated features and teen comedies -- and switch to historical epics. No, Disney went to war only because James Cameron's "Titanic" had made so much damn money for Paramount and 20th Century Fox, the two studios that co-sponsored that $200 million production.

As "Titanic's" box-office gross climbed in 1998 (the film eventually sold more than $1.8 billion in tickets worldwide), studios all over Hollywood took notice. The folks at Disney wondered why they couldn't have a hugely successful epic romantic film all their own that was similarly built around a historic disaster.

The trouble is, all the good disasters had already been taken. Universal Studios had made a movie based on the 1937 explosion of the Hindenburg back in 1975. And Fox owned the copyrights -- as well as the remake rights -- to 1938's In "Old Chicago" and 1943's "Hello, Frisco, Hello!," which meant that the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 and the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 weren't up for grabs, either.

If Disney was going to successfully rip off ... uh, borrow Cameron's film-making formula, they knew they needed a well-known catastrophe as the backdrop for their romantic tale. So Disney decided to build the movie around the Japanese attack. Sure, Pearl Harbor had been dealt with previously onscreen -- remember "From Here to Eternity?" But that was nearly 50 years ago.

Once Pearl Harbor was selected as the film's setting, the production quickly dropped into gear. Disney hired Oscar-winning writer Randall Wallace -- best known as the author of Mel Gibson's historic epic "Braveheart" -- to create a screenplay. They assigned producer Jerry Bruckheimer and director Michael Bay to bring Wallace's vision to the screen. Bay and Bruckheimer then hired Ben Affleck, Alec Baldwin and Cuba Gooding Jr. to bring the story to life.

About $135 million later, "Pearl Harbor" is now in the can. Disney plans to release it late next spring, then sit back and watch as the "Titanic"-sized profits roll in.

There's only one slight stumbling block. When Cameron made his fictionalized version of the Titanic's sinking back in 1997, there were only six people living who'd survived the actual 1912 disaster. The director really didn't have to worry about too many people coming forward with complaints about how he had trivialized this enormous event in their lives.

This is hardly the case with Disney's "Pearl Harbor." Though that battle occurred 59 years ago, the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association counts more than 9,000 living Americans who were stationed in the vicinity of the attack.

The 30-somethings who currently run the Mouse House have scheduled "Pearl Harbor's" national debut on the very time when folks will pause to honor those who gave up their lives in WWII: Memorial Day 2001. Will members of "The Greatest Generation," as Tom Brokaw called them in his best-selling book, be offended? The Mouse hopes not.

These veterans had friends and family members among the 2,343 killed, 960 missing and 1,272 wounded. The survivors might object to their loved ones being used as window dressing for a Ben Affleck flick. But it's more likely they'll quarrel with the "Pearl Harbor" attraction in the works for an opening at Disney/MGM Studios late next spring.

According to the current plan, Walt Disney Imagineering will soon alter the outdoor special-effects area that currently serves at the first scene for the studio's backlot tour. Starting in May, guests will hear audio re-creations of Japanese zeroes making their initial bombing run on American warships anchored at "Pearl Harbor." Then the water tank in front of the audience will explode with an action-packed display, as pyrotechnics re-create the effects of machine-gun fire and torpedoes.

When news of this proposed change first leaked to cast members, the WW II-era employees were appalled. "The whole idea's in such awful taste," grumbled one AARP-eligible cast member. "What's next? Are they going to change the train that circles the Magic Kingdom so that guests can experience a fun trip to the Nazi internment camps at Dachau and Buchenwald?"

Mouse House execs are fretting less about the possible offense than about whether they'll land Celine Dion to sing the love theme on the soundtrack. But they'd better think about it, particularly given Disney's biggest financial partners. The Oriental Land Company Ltd. -- the folks who own and operate Tokyo Disneyland and the soon-to-be-opened Tokyo Disney Seas -- can't be thrilled by the Mouse making a movie that reminds American consumers about Japan's role in WWII.

Without a little smoothing over, Disney's foray into the disaster movie-making business could turn out to be a disaster for the whole company.

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