Judge Jim Thomas is grateful that he wasn't sent the little-know propaganda porno film, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo Rose.
Heartwarming romance…stark, sensational drama! Thrills! Action! Adventure! Ripped from the heart!
In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the nation expected an invasion at any minute, while the military sought to demonstrate that it was a sleeping tiger, not a paper one. In the midst of that chaos, The Army Air Corps conceived a plan that hovered in the grey area between bold and insane. A squadron of B-25B medium bombers would take off from an aircraft carrier and strike at the heart of the Japanese mainland. The mission, led by Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle (Spencer Tracy, Captains Courageous, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?) was planned and executed within 120 days of the Pearl Harbor attack. While the damage inflicted was relatively minor, the attack had far-reaching consequences: Not only did it boost American morale, but it destroyed the Japanese faith in their homeland's invincibility. In response to the newly realized threat, Japan recalled a substantial number of front-line aircraft from combat operations to patrol the Japanese coast. The reduced airpower prevented Japan from maintaining blanket coverage of their captured islands in the Pacific; the resulting patrol gaps contributed to the United States' decisive victory in the Battle of Midway and the subsequent Pacific theater campaigns.
Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is the story of that raid, the brave men who flew it, and the equally brave women who supported them. The film arrives courtesy of Warner Home Video. Upon its 1944 release, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther minced no words, "our first sensational raid on Japan in April 1942 is told with magnificent integrity and dramatic eloquence." High praise indeed, particularly from Crowther. But given that the movie was made in the midst of WWII, is the film an effective dramatization of the events, or is it just thinly disguised propaganda?
Facts of the Case
Army Air Corps Captain Ted Lawson (Van Johnson, A Guy Named Joe, The Caine Mutiny) has volunteered, along with 24 other flight crews, for a secret mission. He arrives at Eglin Field in Florida, only to discover that his wife of six months, Ellen (Phyliss Thaxter, Blood on the Moon, Superman: The Movie), has arrived on base as well. The flight crews throw themselves into their unusual training, while the wives remain ever supportive. When the dust has settled, 16 crews are deemed ready to go.
In the middle of the night, the crews are summoned and orders to fly across country to California. Once there, they are treated to quite a sight—their bombers being loaded via crane onto an aircraft carrier, the USS Hornet. It's then that the crews start to figure out their destination. Shortly after departure, Lt. Col. Doolittle reveals the mission: Bomb Tokyo, and then land on airstrips in China (The Chinese were our friends back then).
The crews complete their mission, but are forced to ditch their planes when they run out of fuel. Lawson's crew survives, but several are injured, including Lawson himself, who has a badly cut leg. They are rescued by the Chinese, who carry them on a slow trek to the safety of an inland hospital, with the Japanese scouring the countryside for the Americans the entire time. Once at the hospital, they meet up with other rescued airmen. Unfortunately, Lawson's leg turns gangrenous, and the doctors are forced to amputate. At last the men are evacuated to Chun King, and from there back to the states. Once there, Lawson's only fears that Ellen won't be able to accept him with his missing leg.
You can probably guess how that part turns out.
In 1943, not long after returning to the States, Ted Lawson, one of the pilots on the mission, collaborated with journalist Bob Considine, and together they wrote the book, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. Lawson pitched it to MGM mogul Sam Zimbalist (Ben-Hur), and the movie deal was quickly made.
Let's start at the top: The main strength of the movie is in the details of the mission itself. The survivors of the raid all vouched for the accuracy of the movie and the details serve the plot well. When the pilots start training, they have no idea what the mission is. As a result, they're confused when some navy officer shows up and starts teaching them about short takeoffs. We even see Lawson's early failures at said takeoff, resulting in his bomber being named the "Fractured Duck." The filmmakers do a wonderful job of mixing stock footage, a minimal amount of aerial footage shot for the movie, and exceptionally well-done rear-projection to give the audience a good feel for what a low-flying bombing mission is like. (I felt a few pangs of motion sickness as the plane bobbed up and down over mountains and trees.) When the bombs started falling, I braced my willing suspension of disbelief in preparation for Godzilla-esque images of destruction, only to be graced with stunningly realistic explosions, capped by a shot of one of the bombers flying over an explosion. Yeah, it's most assuredly old school, but black and white aside, it's pretty impressive even by today's standards, and the film deservedly won an Academy Award for its special effects.
The acting, on the other hand is a mixed bag. For the most part, everyone is in full-bore melodramatic mode—but then, given the movie's tagline, that's to be expected. These are ACTORS speaking HEROIC lines and portraying NOBLE, HEROIC people. You WILL admire them! RESISTANCE IS FUTILE!
OK, maybe that's a bit much. But when you get right down to it, there aren't any characters here, only character types—the wise leader, the noble pilot, the brave wife, etc. Van Johnson has demonstrated solid acting chops in other movies, but screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Roman Holiday, Spartacus) just doesn't give him, or anyone else for that matter, much to work with. Characterization becomes subordinated to moving the story along.
The lone refugees from the melodrama squad are Robert Walker (Strangers on a Train) as Lawson's tail gunner, and Spencer Tracy as Jimmy Doolittle (in what amounts to an extended cameo). Both are direct and low key, making their roles particularly effective. Tracy reminds you why he's Spencer Tracy; despite his limited screen time, his low-key, confident manner gives the film just enough gravitas to keep the proceedings from degenerating into maudlin fluff. There are also a few brief appearances by Robert Mitchum as one of the pilots. He avoids the melodrama bug by virtue of his laconic screen presence, already well in evidence.
Picture quality is very good for a movie made over 50 years ago. Someone took great care with the restoration—scratches and streaks are all but non-existent. The opening shot features a large revolving globe, and the richness of the gradients on the globe really grabs your eye. There is a bit of edge enhancement, particularly in high-contrast situations, but for the most part it isn't distracting.
Audio is about as good as a 1.0 audio track can be, I guess. Dialogue is clear, and there's no background hiss.
Trivial Information: 1. Phyllis Thaxter's career was sidetracked when she contracted polio in 1952. She recovered and made a name as a character actor on the stage and screen, eventually playing Martha Kent in Superman: the Movie. 2. The downed pilots are aided at the hospital by the Parkers, a pair of English missionaries. Mr. Parker is played by Alan Napier, who later went on to aid Adam West and Burt Ward as Alfred in the Batman television series. 3. Destination Tokyo, a 1943 film starring Cary Grant and John Garfield, was a fictional story of an American sub's mission to infiltrate Tokyo Bay to obtain intelligence and weather information for the impending Doolittle Raid.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Plain and simply, the movie is a product of its age. There's no doubt that everyone is trying, but at the same time, there's also the sense that everyone is, perhaps, trying just a bit too hard.
Imagine every single war movie cliché you've ever heard of. You'll find them all in this one movie. All the guys in the barracks singing together? Check. Leader assures men that they can back out of the mission without fear of reprisal? Check (actually, it's a twofer, as the assurance is repeated later in the movie). Group of wives talk cheerfully, blissfully ignoring their fears? Check. Wife reveals pregnancy during training for dangerous mission, raising the possibility of the father dying before the baby is born? Check. Delirious soldier has vision of beauteous wife? Check. Wizened yet kindly Chinese gentleman with a long, wispy beard and coke bottle glasses? Check. Soldier with silly nickname? Check—the 6'3" pilot named Shorty, also notable for having one of the most ridiculous fake Virginia accents to grace the screen (it's not as bad as, say, the New Orleans accent John Travolta essays at the beginning of The General's Daughter, but it's damned close.)
Let me sum it up with one illustration. In the midst of the training, there's a dance at the base, and while the music is initially upbeat, it slows down, with a WWI tune, "There's a Long, Long Trail a-Winding" The women, almost defiantly upbeat and perky to this point, start to lose their composure as the lyrics remind them of the impending mission. Some of them break down in tears and run off. As the last girl rushed off screen, I thought to myself, "You know, if they just wanted to crank this puppy up to 11, they'll do "Auld Lang Syne." And I'll be damned if that wasn't exactly what happened, and the dance comes to a screeching halt. To be fair, that sort of progression may well have been the way things went during the war—sort of a musical version of the "To Absent Friends" toast (similar scenes occurred several times during the run of M*A*S*H, for instance), and I've no doubt that the scene played well when the movie was released. Today, though, you just kind of shake your head, pray that extreme eye-rolling won't damage your optic nerve, and move on.
Warner Home Video throws in a trailer for the movie, along with some extras that they had must have found tucked away on the top shelf. "The Lady Fights Back" almost coherently tells the story of the SS Normandie, a French luxury liner that caught fire and sank in New York Harbor while being converting into a troopship (Wow, even French ships surrender…). "Movie Pests" is an amusing Oscar-nominated short about, well, movie pests. It's a little slow, but perversely timeless—if you add some color and a few cell phones, you've got a documentary about why I don't like going to the movies any more. "Bear Raid Warden" is a vintage Barney Bear cartoon released that same year, so it possibly played along with Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.
You'd think there would be some extras regarding the mission itself, but no such luck. There are 12 surviving raiders, the youngest being 85, so it's possible that health issues may have prevented recording a commentary track. But archival interviews with the survivors, particularly Lawson and Doolittle, must be out there somewhere. Even a photo album of the real pilots and crewmembers would have been a welcome addition.
Warner loses some additional points for just being inconsiderate—while the film is broken down into scenes on the disc, there's no scene access from the main menu.
In its opening statement, the court asked "Is the film an effective dramatization of the events, or is it just thinly disguised propaganda?" The answer is a resounding "YES!" Despite being a little too melodramatic and a lot too cliché-ridden, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo rises above its flaws by virtue of its effective presentation of America's first major operation of WWII. Anyone interested in that war will want to at least rent this one.
Warner Home Video should have the book thrown at them for the criminal dearth of film-related extras, but the court is swayed by the impressive film restoration of this wartime film. Suspended sentence.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Academy Award-nominated Pete Smith Specialty short "Movie Pests"
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