Tora! Tora! Tora!? More like Bora! Bora! Bora! according to our Appellate Judge Erick Harper.
Our review of Tora! Tora! Tora! (Blu-ray) Digibook, published December 12th, 2011, is also available.
I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.—Admiral Isoroku Yamomoto
Twentieth Century-Fox had a major critical and financial success with 1962's The Longest Day. That film was unique in its detailed, dispassionate treatment of both the Allied and Axis sides in the hours leading up to the D-Day invasion. Producer Elmo Williams and studio head Darryl F. Zanuck, in a follow-up project, decided on an equally detailed and balanced presentation of the events leading up to the successful Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
Facts of the Case
In the early 1940s, the world is engulfed in war. The United States has managed to keep out of the war in Europe, despite President Roosevelt's none-too-subtle wishes to the contrary. On the other side of the world, Japan has been fueling her new-found economic prosperity and growing militarism with territorial expansion, creating the "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" through diplomatic coercion when possible and open war when necessary. War has been raging between Japan and China—the United States' principal ally in the region—since the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1937. Tension has been growing between the two budding powers on opposite sides of the Pacific; war between the two is considered more or less inevitable, despite the frantic ongoing negotiations going on in Washington between Secretary of State Cordell Hull and Japanese Ambassador Nomura.
Despite these ongoing tensions, the US military and naval establishment at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii remains unprepared and indecisive. Their lack of foresight will cost them dearly on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941.
Tora! Tora! Tora! is a remarkable accomplishment of detail and realism, and a high point of the "docu-drama" style of filmmaking. The filmmakers went to great lengths to recreate the actual events of the attack based on historical information from both the Japanese and American sides. The film was actually made as two almost completely separate productions. Richard Fleischer (Conan the Destroyer, Soylent Green) was assigned helming duties for the American half of the film, while the legendary Akira Kurosawa (Seven Samurai, Kagemusha) was to shepherd the Japanese portion. This arrangement didn't work out particularly well, and as the pressures involved in the filming mounted, Kurosawa's eccentricities became more and more worrisome to Fox execs. Finally, several weeks into filming and with no usable Japanese footage, Williams and Zanuck had no choice but to sack the Japanese film legend, ultimately replacing him with a pair of directors, Kinji Fukasaku (The Yakuza Papers) and Toshio Masuda (Space Battleship Yamato). (The fiasco over Tora! Tora! Tora! ultimately contributed to Kurosawa's mental breakdown and later suicide attempt.)
Meticulous attention was paid to re-creating historically accurate uniforms, equipment, and other important details. The script, at one point more than 600 pages long, was carefully vetted by the Pentagon, State Department, and the Japanese government to ensure accuracy and political acceptability. U.S. military cooperation allowed access to the actual facilities in Hawaii where the attack took place. The production's meticulous re-creation of the attack actually cost more money than the Japanese government had spent to launch the real attack in the first place. Filming a battle of these proportions before the days of CGI required a massive reenactment, not just a recreation through special effects. Large numbers of vintage aircraft were tracked down and pressed into service for the production. When Japanese Zeroes and other planes were not available due to Japan's destroying them under the terms of the 1945 surrender, U.S. World War II-era AT-6 Texan trainers made adequate stand-ins. The U.S. unit also constructed several ship miniatures (if one can call something 40 feet long truly "miniature") as well as a full-size replica of a portion of the USS Arizona. Similar efforts took place in Japan, where the production's 600 foot long replicas of the battleship Nagato and carrier Akagi even became tourist attractions.
Fox has released a fully-loaded two-disc edition of Tora! Tora! Tora! as part of its Cinema Classics Collection. The picture looks great, with no evidence of digital artifacting or other transfer bugaboos. Colors are crisp and lifelike, and the image in general is much sharper and clearer than expected. The original audio has been wangled into a Dolby Digital 4.1 surround mix that sounds better than it has any right to. Jerry Goldsmith's score fills the entire viewing space, and there is surprisingly good directionality to sound effects like airplane flybys or torpedo runs. Dynamic range is surprisingly full, dialogue is clear and easily distinguishable, and there is little to no residual hiss under the audio.
Along with this excellent presentation, Fox has crammed this two-disc edition with special features devoted to both Tora! Tora! Tora! and the historical Pearl Harbor attack. The first disc includes a commentary featuring director Richard Fleischer and Japanese film historian Stuart Galbraith IV, author of The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshirô Mifune. Their commentary is informative, although it is a bit dry at times and Galbraith does seem to focus a bit overmuch on the involvement of Kurosawa, who of course left the project at a fairly early stage.
Also on Disc One is the historical documentary "Day of Infamy," which provides a nice capsule version of the history behind the movie. Moving on, Disc Two carries a wealth of special features. As is the case with other entries in Fox's Cinema Classics collection, the supplements strike a good balance between the story of the actual historical event and the story of the creation of the film. The heavyweight here is History Through the Lens: Tora! Tora! Tora!—A Giant Awakens. (History Through the Lens is the syndication/DVD alias for repackaged episodes of the History Channel's Hollywood vs. History series.) Narrated by Burt Reynolds, this 90-minute featurette gives an excellent account blending the real history with the filmmaking. Also included is an episode of the American Movie Classics series Hollywood Backstories. This covers much the same material, but includes details such as the film's poor critical reception and box-office failure, so expensive that it eventually cost both Darryl F. Zanuck and Richard Zanuck their jobs with 20th Century Fox.
Stills galleries are without a doubt the most useless bits of content a studio can place on a DVD, and yet the studios persist in including them. Here we get not one but two such galleries, with a total of over 90 pictures. Someone at Fox must share my low opinion of these features, because they have been assembled in a haphazard and careless manner, with more than one picture reversed, with details like lettering clearly backwards in the frame.
Unfortunately, this carelessness also extends to some of the most interesting and valuable features on the disc. The inclusion of several Fox Movietone News clips is very welcome, and a great way for Fox to use valuable assets from their vault. I was pleased to hear all of Roosevelt's war message to Congress, listing all the U.S. possessions and allies attacked more or less simultaneously on December 7, not just the usual "a date which will live in infamy" soundbite. Other clips, such as the one explaining that the Pearl Harbor damage footage can't be shown just yet as it might help Japanese intelligence, are almost shocking in their contrast to today's all-news-all-the-time media. The only problem with these gems is the slapdash treatment they receive. There is no "play all" option, which is mildly irritating. Worse yet are the electronic touch-tone "beep-boop" noises that precede or follow some of the clips, as well as some obviously transfer-related visual noise and static. These smack of careless editing and transfer of these priceless artifacts to DVD, and do diminish the enjoyment of watching them, at least somewhat.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I pity the film that can take one of the turning points of the twentieth century and turn it into a boring ping-pong match between two teams of bureaucrats in badly-decorated sets. For most of its running time, that is exactly what Tora! Tora! Tora! accomplishes. The goal of creating a balanced picture showing both sides of the run-up to the attacks is laudable. However, dogged adherence to this structure—for every American diplomatic scene there must be a corresponding scene in Tokyo, etc.—wrecks the pacing to such an extent that watching the film is as grueling as watching the events in real time.
The fact of the matter is that Tora! Tora! Tora! points up the difficulties inherent in the "docudrama" style. It doesn't work that well as a historical record. There are some matters, like the detailed diplomatic negotiations between the two countries, that simply don't work as dramatic events on the screen. Cramming such complex events into dialogue scenes truncates them too much, leaving us with a shallow gloss that merely hits the textbook high points on the way to the attack, often accompanied by very contrived-sounding dialogue. A straight documentary approach would allow a narrator or talking head to give this information more directly and in much more depth.
At the same time, the film also fails to live up to the "drama" half of its "docudrama" billing. The approach here is too sterile, with too many characters running around. There is no human interest or connection here, no emotional thread to engage the audience's feelings. Hour-long documentaries on the History Channel do a better job of conveying a sense of urgency and impending doom about the events leading up to that fateful Sunday morning than Tora! Tora! Tora! does.
Perhaps it is just the language barrier, but both of these issues seem to be better addressed in the Japanese half of the film. Admiral Yamamoto (Sô Yamamura, Tokyo Story, Gung Ho) emerges as the single most human, sympathetic character in the picture, and the one personality a viewer can latch onto. The expository dialogue, treated in the American scenes as history book infodump, comes across as more natural and elegant in the Japanese scenes. Of course, this comes from my reading of the subtitles; perhaps to Japanese ears the Japanese dialogue scenes come across just as stilted and corny as the American ones do for me.
Tora! Tora! Tora! fails largely because it is such an audaciously ambitious undertaking. In its attempt to dramatize history both history and drama wind up shortchanged. There are some spectacular moments, and an overall dedication to meticulous realism and detail that is laudable, but as a movie, as a piece of filmed entertainment, it falls flat.
This new DVD from Fox, on the other hand, is outstanding, both in its treatment of the film and the underlying historical events. The film transfer is as close to perfect as we have any right to expect, and the wealth of special features really helps to understand both Tora! Tora! Tora! and the actual attack on Pearl Harbor.
In a split decision we find Tora! Tora! Tora! guilty of just not being a very good movie, but find Fox not guilty and release them with the thanks of the court for this excellent DVD presentation.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Director Richard Fleischer and Japanese Film Historian Stuart Galbraith IV
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