War Movie Mondays: ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’

Greetings War Movie Monday fans. This week’s pick is the 1970 20th Century Fox classic Tora! Tora! Tora! which depicts the attack on Pearl Harbor on Sunday December 7, 1941 as seen through the eyes of both the American and Japanese Forces. The attack on Pearl Harbor was what hurtled a shocked and outraged America into the chaos of World War II.

The film was made at a time in which a lot of the information was becoming available to the general public who were still unaware of the political back story which led up to the attack. The film was primarily casted with B-list talent as to not draw attention away from the story.

The cast includes Martin Balsam (Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, Cmd-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet), Joseph Cotten (Sec. of War Henry L. Stimson), E.G. Marshall (Col. Rufus Bratton), Soh Yamamura (Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, Cmd-in-Chief, Imperial Navy), James Whitmore (Vice Adm. William “Bull” Halsey), George Macready (Sec. of State Cordell Hull), and Jason Robards (Lt. Gen. Walter Short, Cmd-in-Chief, U.S. Army Forces Hawaii).

The film opens with the newly appointed Yamamoto taking over as the head of the Imperial fleet in 1940. Yamamoto and his subordinates discuss the growing tensions between their country and the U.S. which has placed a trade embargo which deprives them of raw materials, especially oil which they need in order to maintain their campaign of conquest in China and the rest of Southeast Asia. Yamamoto proposes a plan to cripple the U.S. Pacific fleet in one fatal blow their plan: to attack the U.S. Pacific fleet which has moved its base of operations from San Diego, California to the island of Oahu, Hawaii. With the U.S. Pacific fleet destroyed, the Japanese can wage total war w/o American intervention.

Unlike Michael Bay’s disastrous attempt at film making with the release of Pearl Harbor (2001), a bad third grade oral history report of the war, Tora! Tora! Tora! does a decent job which shows the events which lead up to the attack, such as the U.S. reaction when Japan signs the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy to become the third Axis power in the war. In Washington D.C., American intelligence branches of the Army and Navy had broken the Japanese Purple Code which were radio communiques sent from Tokyo to their embassy in Washington. Col. Bratton (Marshall) is the man who tries to convince his superiors and the President that the Japanese are planning an attack which may threaten American forces, but they don’t know where or when the Japanese plan to strike. Meanwhile Japanese ambassador Nomura tries to find a peaceful outcome with Sec. of State Hull (Macready) who meets with him on many occasions to keep diplomacy strong between the two nations.

There are some lull points in the film, but the film begins to pick up when the date of infamy draws ever closer. When the Japanese fighters fly off the deck of their carriers in the early morning hours, the tension builds as they begin their clandestine attack against the American forces on Pearl. The events portrayed at this point in the film did in fact happen, and the Japanese were effective in achieving total surprise (Tora Tora Tora being the code for the attack). Anti-aircraft batteries were never fired, radar installations discovered a large blip coming in from the Northwest quadrant and were told that it was a squadron of American B-17 bombers flying in from the mainland; even a naval officer who looks up to see a low level bomber mistaken for an American plane turns to his colleague and says “get that guy’s number Dick and report him for safety violation” all happened.

The film was a joint American and Japanese production which took three years to coordinate. Director Richard Fleischer headed up the American principle photography and famed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa would head up the second unit. Due to budget constraints and set backs, Kurosawa was eventually let go and directors Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda were brought on board to finish the film. Kurosawa stayed on to help finish the screenplay, but received no mention in the end credits. Richard Fleischer commented on the matter years later in an interview about the situation to let Kurosawa go.

“Well, I always thought that even though Kurosawa was a genius at film making and indeed he was, I sincerely believe that he was miscast for this film, this was not his type of film to make, he never made anything like it and it just wasn’t his style. I felt he was not only uncomfortable directing this kind of movie but also he wasn’t used to having somebody tell him how he should make his film. He always had complete autonomy, and nobody would dare make a suggestion to Kurosawa about a budget, or shooting schedule, or anything like that. And then here he was, with Darryl Zanuck on his deck and Richard Zanuck on him and Elmo Williams and the production managers, and it was all stuff that he never had run into before, because he was always untouchable. I think he was getting more and more nervous and more insecure of how he was going to work on this film. And of course, the press got a hold of this unrest on the set and they made a lot out of that in Japan, and it was more pressure on him, and he wasn’t used to that kind of pressure.”

At the time of release, the film was a dud which cost over twenty five million to make, yet only grossed $14.5 million for 20th Century Fox for that year. The film did much better years later on the home video circuit and was well liked in Japan. Many critics panned it as “mediocre” at best. Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun Times wrote “Tora! Tora! Tora! is one of the deadest, dullest blockbusters ever made and suffers from having no characters to identify with.” Variety also found the film boring, while other reviews were positive and praised the film for its aerial photography, special effects, and big production value. The film won an Academy Award for Best Special Effects, and was nominated for three others which were Best Art Direction, Best Editing and Sound, and Best Cinematography.

After forty years, Tora! Tora! Tora! has proven that it is a true Hollywood classic and has earned a place among the great war films. The film is very well cast and the film moves at a very good pace. The attack sequences are superbly executed and achieve a dynamic effect on the audience. In some cases, the danger was so realistic, that extras were running for fear of their lives when explosions occurred too close on set. Tora! Tora! Tora! has always been a war film that I have had the utmost respect for, and it is definitely one of my favorite war movies in my collection.

Tora! Tora! Tora! is available on Special Edition DVD through 20th Century Fox and can be rented via Netflix.

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