How the Navy Stole the Show In a Movie About the USS Nimitz Going Back in Time to 1941

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A user-generated skin based on the 1980 movie "The Final Countdown" was created for Digital Combat Simulator. (DCS World/Author "Reflected")

Ever wonder how history might have been different if the U.S. Navy had a modern supercarrier when the Japanese were attacking Pearl Harbor? You (apparently) aren’t alone. The 1980 film “The Final Countdown” (almost) shows us how it might have gone down.

Today, the USS Nimitz is the oldest-serving aircraft carrier in the world, first being launched in 1972. Even today, it is one of the largest warships afloat. In 1979, when “The Final Countdown” was filmed, it was something the Navy was excited to show off, so it agreed to fully support the movie.

The plot of “The Final Countdown” is pretty simple, especially for a movie about time travel. While on a routine cruise, the carrier and its F-14 Tomcats experience an electrical storm and somehow find themselves transported back to Dec. 6, 1941, but aren’t immediately aware of that fact.

The ship loses radio contact with its command at Pearl Harbor, and Capt. Matthew Yelland (Kirk Douglas) is led to believe that the installation was destroyed by a nuclear first strike from the Soviet Union -- because whose first thought would be that they accidentally went back in time?

Yelland starts to suspect when aerial reconnaissance images come back showing the U.S. Navy’s Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor. The suspicion intensifies when two F-14 Tomcats are dispatched to intercept a surface contact and instead watch a civilian yacht get strafed by Japanese Zeros.

The Zeros make their way toward the Nimitz, and we finally get to see the anachronistic Hollywood portrayal of F-14s taking down 1940s-era Japanese fighter aircraft. Sadly, this is as close as we get to watching the Nimitz litter the ocean floor with the Japanese fleet. Spoiler alert: Yelland decides to attack, but the time-travel storm returns and sends the ship back to 1980.

Don't you know a time warp when you see one? (United Artists)

Not only is there a lot of sexy shots of the Nimitz in this movie, but other Navy aircraft, especially the F-14 Tomcat, get shown off as well. Admittedly, the F-14 sequences are more inspirational than anything you’ll see in “Top Gun” (fight me). It was practically the Navy’s movie, highlighting everything that is Forged by the Sea.

Sailors from the carrier (some sporting totally legal 1979-era beards) were used as extras and received acting credits. Apart from the F-14, nine other aircraft were used or featured in the film in some way.

But the filming wasn’t completely free from incidents. At least one film crew was tossed down the Nimitz runway by the sheer power of being too close to a Tomcat takeoff. The Zeros used in the film were replicas whose lives were nearly cut short when the propeller planes got caught in the wake of an F-14’s jet wash.

The movie didn’t get great reviews, but the Navy sure did. Even famed film critic Roger Ebert noticed that “the biggest element of interest is the aircraft carrier itself” and liked the depiction of Navy life aboard the Nimitz more than the story itself.

After the reel-life production of “The Final Countdown,” the USS Nimitz had to get back to real life, cruising to the Persian Gulf. Its next assignment was an attempt to rescue the staff of the U.S. embassy in Tehran during the Iran Hostage Crisis.

-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at blake.stilwell@military.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.

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