Judge Erick Harper says you can blame this flick if you hate all those sub movie clichés.
Heroic drama that takes you from the bottom of Tokyo Bay to the height of adventure!
Coming to theaters in 1943, Destination Tokyo wrote the book on the World War II submarine movie. It's packed full of elements that seem formulaic and clichéd to us today, but which hadn't yet had time to become overused. It's a little corny, a little sentimental, and definitely makes submarine warfare look like a lot more fun than it actually was.
Facts of the Case
Captain Cassidy (Cary Grant, The Philadelphia Story, Notorious) and his crew must take the USS Copperfin into Tokyo Bay and gather intelligence for the upcoming Doolittle raid. They leave port on Christmas Eve; no warm firesides or phone calls home for this gallant crew. Captain Cassidy does his best to get through to his wife and children in Oklahoma City, trying one last call from the dockside phone, but to no avail; all circuits are busy, it being Christmas Eve and all.
The men try to make the best of things, bestowing a few presents on each other along with a lot of good-natured ribbing. For a few days, life onboard the sub seems pretty much normal; the men get haircuts, go about their duties, and trade tips about how to pick up women while on shore leave. They listen to advice dished out by wise old Cookie (Alan Hale, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Desperate Journey). They also delve into deeper philosophical matters, such as whether or not there is a God, and whether or not the prayers of submariners have much effect. Of course there's the new guy, Tommy (Robert Hutton, And Baby Makes Three), who the old salts can explain things to so that their exposition for the audience doesn't seem quite so obvious.
Once the Copperfin is twenty-four hours out of port, Cassidy goes to the safe and opens their sealed top-secret orders. They must proceed to the Aleutian Islands to pick up a specially trained intelligence officer and then proceed to Tokyo Bay where they will penetrate the anti-submarine nets, conduct reconnaissance of the harbor, and report their results back to the fleet via a small landing party with a short-wave radio. All of this must be done in time to relay their intelligence to the strike force commanded by James Doolittle as they prepare to make the first strike against the Japanese home islands.
Along the way there is excitement galore, including an attack by Japanese planes, an unexploded bomb that has to be defused, tense moments lying in wait on the bottom of Tokyo Bay trying to avoid detection by Japanese destroyers, hair-raising action with a covert landing party on actual Japanese soil, and if all that weren't enough, an emergency appendectomy performed by the ship's pharmacist while still in Japanese waters.
Destination Tokyo is probably the quintessential example of Hollywood's wartime efforts to combine good filmmaking with good citizenship. Yes, there is a lot of pro-American anti-Japanese propaganda here, make no mistake. It is couched in some more enlightened terms than you might expect, however. There is little actual racism employed, but rather a sense that the Japanese are people victimized by a rotten system of militarism. Grant's character spells this out in a speech where he talks about stopping a system that "puts daggers into the hands of five-year-olds," and instead creating a world where the youngsters will play with roller skates, just like their good old all-American counterparts. There are also attempts at shoring up American unity and identity, such as the sailor who makes the point that he is not just Greek but Greek-American. Almost everything in the film, from Cary Grant's unlikely Midwestern home with wife and kids to the atheist who suddenly gets religion under fire, is meant to reflect traditional American values, or at least American values as Hollywood and Norman Rockwell understood them at the time.
Sometimes this gets the film into trouble, such as the cloying touch of having them depart on Christmas Eve. This sets up a problematic timeline for the movie, as Cookie talks about what they were doing on Christmas Eve 1941, shortly after Pearl Harbor. So, we know that the movie takes place after 1941. The problem is, the Doolittle Raid took place in April 1942; there's no time for another Christmas to go by before they collect their intelligence and send the bombers on their way. At the same time, a crewman on board the Copperfin mentions that he wonders how the invasion of Europe is going, an event that took place well after the first attacks on Japan. Sure, this may be nitpicking, but if I picked up on it, surely audiences in 1943 who were living the events of the war firsthand would know that something was out of whack with the timeline.
Timeline issues and a few schmaltzy moments aside, Destination Tokyo is a first-rate submarine flick. There is a lot of plot and plenty of action, so that even at 135 minutes in length the movie never really seems to drag. Delmer Daves makes the most of his directorial debut, creating a fast-paced film full of tension and thrills but never shortchanging the human element. The tension of the battle scenes is heightened because of the care taken to establish the crewmen as real people by spending time on their interactions and musings. As an added treat, the underwater special effects are quite good for the period.
Cary Grant brings an unexpected sincerity to a role that he might have been tempted to play with more of a sly wink to the audience. The story and dialogue are earnest almost to a fault, and Grant respects that, and the overall message of the film, through the low-key genuineness and warmth of his performance. Receiving second billing, and an energetic, brash counterpoint to Grant's decent and reserved captain, is John Garfield (The Postman Always Rings Twice) as the happy-go-lucky, skirt-chasing sailor known only as Wolf. Together they represent two different aspects of the America that went to war. Grant is the quiet, gentle man of the Midwest, and Garfield plays the exuberant, urbanite, devil-may-care red-blooded American of such vibrant places as New York.
The source material has probably seen better days, however. The print shows a lot of nicks, scratches, and other defects. This is compounded by what looks to be a less than ideal transfer, with some scenes showing a definite sparkle and other defects around sharp edges. The quality of the blacks varies widely too; in some scenes they are sharp, with good tone-on-tone resolution and good definition of shadowed areas. Other scenes lose these nuances, with everything below a certain level of whiteness blending into an inky mess. It looks to me like Warner Brothers had their hands full just getting this print to look somewhat respectable on DVD; making it look any better would probably have required some pretty intensive restoration work that really wouldn't make much economic sense.
The sound is notably bad. There is a constant static—not just hiss mind you, but definite static—under the audio. There are also some problems with blaring and distortion in the musical score, and a few spots where voices gurgled a bit. Again, I assume that Warners did the best they (reasonably) could with the source material they had at hand.
On new releases of some of their classic films, Warner Brothers has been including other interesting bits from their vaults. For example, on the Collector's Editions of both The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, they have included a full "Warner night at the movies," with old newsreels, cartoons, and so forth leading up to the main feature. Destination Tokyo doesn't get quite the full treatment, but we do get the 1934 musical short Gem of the Ocean starring Jeanne Aubert. There is some attempt at a story involving a young ingénue and the man who is blackmailing her, but it's just an excuse for lively musical numbers and bad one-liners. It is a nice touch, but doesn't really fit with the feature presentation. On the DVD packaging and the menus it is billed as a "wartime short," but I can't bring to mind any relevant wars that were in session in 1934. The other special feature is a gallery of ten trailers for Cary Grant films. Destination Tokyo is included, as are Bringing up Baby, The Philadelphia Story, and North by Northwest, just to name a few.
Destination Tokyo is the granddaddy of the submarine movie in all its permutations. It's all here, including the kitchen sink; this film is a veritable encyclopedia of every situation you've ever seen submariners experience on the big screen. It is important to remember, when watching it, that Destination Tokyo isn't following clichés, it's inventing them. It is also an enjoyable, exciting action picture with plenty of heroic action.
Not guilty! Destination Tokyo is free to patrol the sea lanes, looking for merchant shipping to send to the bottom.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Theatrical Trailer
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