Monday, May 26, 2014

Tora! Tora! Tora! (20th Century-Fox, 1970)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles the DVD of Tora! Tora! Tora! — another movie, like In the Heat of the Night, that I hadn’t seen since its original release (when my stepfather took me to see it at a drive-in). It got lousy reviews and was a box-office flop in 1970 — the New York Herald-Tribune, famous for its joking one-line reviews of films, called it “Torable! Torable! Torable!” — but I liked it then and I still do. Tora! Tora! Tora! was the story of the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and what made it unique among war movies was it told the story from both U.S. and Japanese points of view — which had the ironic result of showing how similar the military mind-set and sense of ritual is regardless of what nation the military belongs to and which side they’re fighting on. Charles joked that the U.S. officers looked like “Keystone Commanders” and the Japanese ones looked like figures out an opéra-bouffe (which I suspect was simply because Japanese naval officer uniforms in 1941 were so much more ornate than U.S. ones), and I replied that Admiral Yamamoto, the Japanese naval commander who was the architect of the Pearl Harbor attack, seemed like the only officer on either side who really knew what he was doing. (That’s an impression you get easily from reading the historical literature on Pearl Harbor as well.) The original plan was to use separate directors and crews for the two halves of the film — Akira Kurosawa for the Japanese sequences and Richard Fleischer for the U.S. ones — but for some reason Kurosawa was fired, no other reputable Japanese director would agree to replace him because of the great insult done to Japan and its culture by his firing from the film, so in the end two hacks did the Japanese sequences and Fleischer got credit for the overall film.

Tora! Tora! Tora! has its defects — it’s very slowly paced and not especially exciting, and the script sets up all too many sequences where actions of the U.S. officers in particular seem incredibly stupid in 20/20 hindsight but would have been defensible at the time (while others — notably Army general Walter Short’s insistence on parking his entire fighter-plane force wingtip-to-wingtip outside the hangars, and the decision to shut down the Pearl Harbor radar capability at 7 a.m. every day — just seem dumb, period) — but overall it’s a quite compelling tale even though its interpretation of Pearl Harbor is, not surprisingly, an orthodox one that ignores the long-standing accusation that President Roosevelt knew the attack was going to occur and allowed it to take place to provide a casus belli for U.S. entry into World War Two. A special bonus on the DVD, a 20-minute pocket documentary called Day of Infamy, briefly examines the “revisionist” theory that Roosevelt knew about Pearl Harbor in advance and rejects it on three grounds: 1) Roosevelt cared too deeply about the American people to permit 3,000 of them to die in an attack if it could have been prevented; 2) Roosevelt really didn’t care about Japan that much — to him the main enemy in 1941 was Germany; and 3) Roosevelt wouldn’t have allowed an attack that would have destroyed as much of the U.S. fleet (though elsewhere in Day of Infamy the documentarians noted that Pearl Harbor really didn’t destroy the fleet — only three battleships were permanently taken out of commission that day; the others were either repaired or rebuilt and did see action later in the war) — to which John Toland, who didn’t believe that Roosevelt knew in advance when he wrote The Rising Sun (his book on overall Japanese strategy during World War II) but did when he wrote his Pearl Harbor book Infamy a decade later, said that Roosevelt simply underestimated how much damage the attack would do: he accepted the assurances of his naval commanders that ships in Pearl Harbor would be invulnerable to attack by torpedo bombs because the waters at Pearl were so shallow the torpedoes would sink and hit bottom before they leveled out and homed in on their targets. Tora! Tora! Tora! mentions this but does not make clear how the Japanese figured out how to make the attack work — by replacing the metal stabilizing fins on the torpedoes with wooden ones, which kept the torpedoes afloat long enough to level out in shallower water and make it to their targets at Pearl.

Still, Tora! Tora! Tora! manages to tell its story compellingly and engagingly. The official “fall guys” for Pearl Harbor were the commanders on duty at the time, Admiral Husband C. Kimmel (and where did this guy get a first name like “Husband” anyway?) and General Walter C. Short; the film makes Kimmel look O.K. (aware of at least some of the dangers of his position but denied the resources he needed to keep tabs on the Japanese or to repel the attack once it came) — though the real Kimmel was considerably taller and handsomer than Martin Balsam, who plays him — but Short comes off as a total doofus. It’s also nice to see people like Joseph Cotten (as Henry Stimson) and Leon Ames (as Frank Knox) even though their appearances are over and done with in a flash. And while the special effects of the attack are below modern standards, certainly the horror of the attack itself comes through quite strongly — especially in the remarkable scenes of planes on the ground being blown up by Japanese bombs and aerial machine-gun fire either before their pilots can get to them or while their pilots are desperately trying to get them off the ground to offer some defense. (Interestingly, the story of the Black mess cook who manned an anti-aircraft gun and fired at the attacking planes is depicted only in passing, and only visually; this part of the story became far more important in Michael Bay’s 2001 Pearl Harbor film.) Of course, it’s impossible to see Tora! Tora! Tora! or any other depiction of Pearl Harbor today without making the inevitable comparisons between December 7, 1941 and September 11, 2001 — including the macabre coincidence that about the same number of people (3,000) were killed on both those days of infamy — though the differences are as obvious as the similarities: as I’ve pointed out in these pages before, for all the surprise behind Pearl Harbor (more surprising in its execution than its intent — the Japanese fully intended their declaration of war to reach Washington before the attack began, but it didn’t because of their own set of darkly humorous — in retrospect — communications glitches) at least it was an act of war by another country, executed by planes clearly marked with insignia indicating where they were from and who was doing this to us, whereas 9/11 came from a non-governmental organization of worldwide reach and scope which has proved impervious to conventional retaliation, no matter how much the Bush administration keeps trying (against Afghanistan and now Iraq!). — 1/27/03


The film was Tora! Tora! Tora!, the 1970 war epic from 20th Century-Fox dealing with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The movie was a flop in the U.S. — though, oddly, it was a hit in Japan — and though it was one of the cycle of big all-star movies about World War II battles Fox had kicked off eight years earlier with The Longest Day it was innovative in that it sought to depict the battle from both sides. The original plan by producers Elmo Williams and Richard Fleischer was to hire separate directors for the American and Japanese portions of the film, and Fox recruited the legendary Akira Kurosawa to helm the Japanese parts — which would have been interesting. Alas, Kurosawa departed the project early — apparently he actually shot some footage, though less than one minute’s worth of his material made it to the final cut (so he got treated even worse than George Cukor did on Gone With the Wind!) — but I’ve seen three different versions of his dismissal. In Steven Bach’s memoir Final Cut he talks about interviewing David Brown, Richard Zanuck’s producing partner in Zanuck fils’ post-Fox career, who said that the Japanese film industry considered it such a collective insult when Kurosawa was fired from the film that no other Japanese director would take the assignment. Two posts on’s “trivia” page for the film give contradictory accounts: one says Kurosawa resigned because he had been told, or led to believe, that David Lean would be handling the American portions, and he didn’t want to be associated with a film in which his co-director would be a hack like Richard Fleischer instead of an acknowledged master like Lean. Another account is that Kurosawa wanted to pad the cast with wealthy Japanese investors so he could score brownie points with them to get them to finance his future films, and Fox caught him doing this and let him go. I’ve seen Tora! Tora! Tora! three times — the first at a drive-in showing to which my stepfather took me (he and my mom ultimately broke up over the Viet Nam War — he was for it, she against — and the overall political estrangement it symbolized); the second with Charles when I first got the DVD; and the third last night with our friend Garry. It seemed a bit slower this time than it had before, since it was divided into two acts (like a lot of big movies at the time) with an intermission in between, and the intermission was spotted so the break would occur at dawn on December 7, 1941.

The first half of the film was therefore about the planning for the attack — both on the Japanese side and on the American; the Japanese were working out the details and doing practice runs (one grimly amusing little scene shows the dive-bomber pilots doing their rehearsals along the Japanese coast, while women wave to them and a local fisherman complains, “Those pilots! They’re attracting the geisha girls — but scaring away the fish!”) and the Americans were getting information about the planned attack from MAGIC, their interception of the Japanese diplomatic code (though as historian John Toland — who had the advantage on this subject of having married a Japanese woman and therefore having learned to speak and read Japanese — pointed out in his two books on the subject, The Rising Sun and Infamy, the Americans were able to read the Japanese code but not to translate it accurately because no one on the translation staff knew the Japanese diplomatic language; instead they translated the intercepts according to what the words meant in ordinary Japanese, which made the Japanese intentions sound considerably more warlike than they were), but glitches in the distribution of this information and the complacency with which much of the American command structure greeted the warnings from the code-breakers ensured that nothing was done to stop the attack. At least that’s the conventional historical view, and the one endorsed not only by the movie itself but also by a documentary featurette included with the DVD as a bonus item, which deliberately set out to knock down the alternative view that President Franklin Roosevelt knew the Japanese were set to attack Pearl Harbor and did nothing to stop it because he wanted a casus belli to get the U.S. involved in World War II on the Allied side, and a Japanese bombing attack on the U.S. fleet would provide it. (There’s been a similar historical argument over whether the Bush administration knew of the 9/11 attacks in advance and allowed them to occur because they would provide the pretext for a “global war on terror,” including an attack on Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and heavy repression of dissent here at home.) Interestingly, John Toland rejected the “Roosevelt knew” analysis of Pearl Harbor when he wrote The Rising Sun but changed his mind and embraced it a decade later when he wrote Infamy. If the version of Pearl Harbor presented in Tora! Tora! Tora! is historically accurate — and the filmmakers worked as hard as they could, within the limitations of Hollywood, to make it so — it’s an object lesson proving one of my favorite sayings, “Never attribute to malignity what can be explained by incompetence.” As portrayed here, the Americans had all the information they needed either to stop the Pearl Harbor attack or at least to mount a more effective fight-back (the “Tora! Tora! Tora!” call itself was devised by the architect of the attack, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto [Soh Yamamura], as a go-code to the pilots; the idea was that would be the signal that they had achieved the complete surprise Yamamoto regarded as essential for the attack’s success), but they never put it all together in one place (and the same is likely true for the Bush administration and 9/11 as well).

The film goes into great detail about all the missed opportunities for the U.S. to put two and two together — including one set of commanders that actually predicted a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor but predicted it for November 30, a week before it actually took place (which meant that the warnings of the actual attack were treated as more nonsense from the boys who’d cried wolf). It also mentioned a missed opportunity on the Japanese side: a second wave of attackers were ready to go when Yamamoto’s on-site commander, Admiral Zengo Yoshida (Junya Usami), called it off, partly because he wanted to preserve Japan’s own planes and the aircraft carriers that had launched them, partly because he didn’t know exactly where the American aircraft carriers were (the absence of the carriers from the fleet at Pearl Harbor when the attack occurred is the principal piece of evidence cited by the “Roosevelt knew” crowd — supposedly Roosevelt, a former assistant secretary of the navy in World War I, had divined ahead of most military people that in future naval wars the battleship would become increasingly useless and the carrier would be decisive, so he was willing to sacrifice the U.S. battleship fleet to preserve the carriers — but I still don’t believe FDR was either that brilliant or that Machiavellian) and he didn’t want to risk his planes running out of gas and crashing in the sea while they were looking for them. (This seems to me a military blunder comparable to Civil War Union General George B. McClellan’s failure to go after Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces after the Union victory at Antietam Creek in September 1862, which allowed Lee to do a strategic retreat instead of facing a rout that might have ended the war then and there.) Aside from its importance as an historical document — though, not surprisingly, some inaccuracies slipped in despite the best efforts of the filmmakers to avoid them — Tora! Tora! Tora! is a quite good movie, slow going in the early stages (and missing a key piece of information included in the later, and mostly far inferior, 2001 film Pearl Harbor: the Americans thought their fleet would be invulnerable to attacks from dive bombers with torpedoes because the harbor itself was so shallow the torpedoes would sink before their reached their targets, but the Japanese figured out a way around this: they took off the metal stabilizing fins from the torpedoes and replaced them with wooden ones, which kept the torpedoes buoyant long enough to hit the ships they were aimed at) but building up to an exciting climax with the actual attack, which seems (unlike in most depictions of it) to go on forever. The film shows not only the Japanese attack but also the attempts of the U.S. forces to mount some sort of resistance — hindered by the lame-brained decision of the on-base Army commander, Walter C. Short, to leave the base’s planes out in the open, parked wingtip-to-wingtip, because he thought the real danger to them was from sabotage and he wanted to be able to see any potential saboteurs. Instead the Japanese were able to blow up most of the planes with a few well-aimed bombs, and even the ones that weren’t destroyed had a difficult time actually getting airborne.

It’s mostly an ensemble cast, but at least two performers stand out: one is E. G. Marshall as Col. Rufus Bratton (he’s designated a lieutenant colonel in the movie but he was a full colonel in real life), the head of the office that had broken and was intercepting the Japanese coded messages. Marshall turns in a finely honed performance expressing his frustration at being virtually the only one in the U.S. military or the civilian government who understands the danger Pearl Harbor is facing from an imminent Japanese attack. The other standout actor is Soh Yamamura as Yakamoto, who in this reading of the Pearl Harbor story comes off much the way Colin Powell did in the second U.S.-Iraq war: loyally signing on to and executing a policy he knows will have disastrous consequences for his country, and doing his best to make a government decision he disagrees with work. The much talked-about line at the end of the film in which Yamamoto says, “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve,” is probably fictional — at least no one has ever traced it to anything the real Yamamoto said or wrote about the war — though there’s a similar quote in Hiroyuki Agawa’s biography of Yamamoto: “A military man can scarcely pride himself on having ‘smitten a sleeping enemy’; it is more a matter of shame, simply, for the one smitten. I would rather you made your appraisal after seeing what the enemy does, since it is certain that, angered and outraged, he will soon launch a determined counterattack.” What that’s a reference to is an element in bushido, the traditional Japanese code of the samurai warrior, that it was wrong to sneak into an enemy’s bedroom and stab him in his sleep, but O.K. to wake him up, allow him to reach for his sword and defend himself as best he could — and the Japanese plan had been to hand the U.S. government an ultimatum at 1 p.m. Eastern standard time on December 7 and launch the attack a half-hour later, but because the Japanese secretary typing up the ultimatum only knew how to type with two fingers, the ultimatum didn’t reach U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull (played in the film by George Macready) until an hour or so after the attack started (and Hull’s fury when he receives it is one of the best moments in the movie).

Tora! Tora! Tora! isn’t a great movie, but it’s surprisingly good — better, I think, than The Longest Day (its clear model) and also comparing to Pearl Harbor about the way the 1958 British film A Night to Remember, about the Titanic, compares to the James Cameron Titanic; like A Night to Remember, Tora! Tora! Tora! avoids inventing fictional characters and having them play clichéd situations. Instead it uses only dramatis personae that actually existed historically and gets more than enough drama from the real people involved. It’s certainly a movie that didn’t deserve the rather arrogant dismissal it got from the New York Herald-Tribune when it was released (the one-line summary of their review was, “Torable! Torable! Torable!”), and it’s worth recounting the joke around the 20th Century-Fox lot when it was about to be released in Japan. Fox had just put out the movie Star!, an attempt at a follow-up to The Sound of Music — same director (Robert Wise), screenwriter (William Fairchild) and star (Julie Andrews — again cast as a real person, Gertrude Lawrence), and it had been such a total bomb they tried reissuing it in a cut-down print under the title Those Were the Happy Times. (It still flopped.) So the joke around the lot was that when Tora! Tora! Tora! was released in Japan, they were going to cut an hour out of it and call it Those Were the Happy Times. — 5/26/14