This review is a respectful collaboration between Judge Clark Douglas and the Japanese government.
Our review of Tora! Tora! Tora!, published July 13th, 2006, is also available.
The attack on Pearl Harbor.
"I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve."
Facts of the Case
It's the fall of 1941. Tensions between the United States and Japan continue to build, and military officials on both sides begin to suspect that war is inevitable. After lengthy sessions of strategizing, debating, speculating and worrying, a decision is finally made: Japan will launch an attack on the United States on December 7th. The events leading up to this moment and the attack itself are documented with painstaking realism in Tora! Tora! Tora!
Considering it was the one of the most expensive films of all time when it was produced (second only to Cleopatra), Tora! Tora! Tora! feels kind of small. To be sure, the film's final act offers a large-scale recreation of a major historical event, but cinematic battles of similar size had been staged in many other films. A large chunk of Tora! Tora! Tora!'s expenses didn't end up on the screen, as the film went through a hellish development period. Production had to be delayed for an entire year, as Fox scrambled to cover the costs of a pair of major flops (Doctor Dolittle and Star!—perhaps exclamation points drive audiences away?) and there were conflicts between many of the parties involved.
One of those parties was esteemed director Akira Kurosawa, who was brought onboard to direct the Japanese portions of the film. In an attempt to be objective and respectful to all parties involved, Fox agreed to allow Japanese filmmakers to write and direct roughly half of the movie. Kurosawa seemed like the obvious choice, but the great director didn't respond well to being treated like a hired gun. When Fox resisted some of his artistic choices (including a screenplay over 600 pages long), Kurosawa began suffering something of a nervous breakdown. Eventually, the director was fired from the project (despite threatening to commit hara-kiri when he was informed that the studio intended to let him go) and was replaced with the less esteemed combo of Kinji Fukasaka (Battle Royale) and Toshio Masuda (Shaso). Though Kurosawa undoubtedly would have delivered a more memorable film, Fukasaka and Masuda were probably a better match for American director Richard Fleischer, a director generally known for his workmanlike professionalism (as such, his resume is littered with a mix of good, bad and ugly which includes 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Fantastic Voyage, Doctor Dolittle, Soylent Green, and Conan the Destroyer).
Tora! Tora! Tora! feels very much like a sprawling epic stripped down to the bare essentials, wasting no time on trivial subplots or character development. It's something of a surprise to see an intermission appear in a film which runs less than two and half hours; it feels like a leftover of a much longer affair. Critics attacked the film as a dull, lifeless historical re-enactment upon its release and audiences failed to respond. To be sure, the movie isn't exactly brimming over with emotion, but I'll take the exhaustively-researched historical authenticity over the more audience-friendly nonsense delivered by Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor. The film works best as a historical resource; a reasonably accessible demonstration of what happened on December 7, 1941 which isn't distorted by flag-waving propaganda or excessive Hollywood gloss. It functions best as a companion piece to history books and documentaries.
The film was initially intended to be a grand star vehicle in the tradition of The Longest Day, but by the time casting began the picture had already gone vastly over budget. As such, the filmmakers were forced to go for reliable character actors and fading stars: Joseph Cotten (Citizen Kane), George MacReady (Paths of Glory), Jason Roboards (Magnolia), James Whitmore (The Shawshank Redemption), E.G. Marshall (National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation), Martin Balsam (12 Angry Men), and Richard Anderson (The Six Million Dollar Man). The Japanese cast was largely filled with even less well-known figures, though it did include So Yamamura (Tokyo Story) as a solemn Admiral Yamamoto. Everyone fares well enough, but this most assuredly isn't an acting showcase; there are precious few big moments for the assorted players to sink their teeth into.
Tora! Tora! Tora! (Blu-ray) offers a handsome 1080p/2.35:1 transfer which offers crisp, clean detail throughout (it's a considerable step up from many other war films of the era which have been released on Blu-ray—The Battle of Britain, Battle of the Bulge, etc.). There are a few moments of softness and black levels aren't quite as inky as I'd like, but it's generally a sharp picture (sometimes a bit too sharp, as the use of models and rear projection seem more prominent in hi-def). The audio track is solid enough, delivering a moderately impressive kick during the film's final act. The dogfights can get a little distorted on occasion, but that's par for the course with a film this old. Supplements are an impressive, informative mix of historical info and behind-the-scenes detail: a commentary with Stuart Galbraith IV and Richard Fleischer, a 90-minute History Channel documentary entitled "History vs. Hollywood: Tora! Tora! Tora!—A Giant Awakes," two solid featurettes (the historical piece "Day of Infamy" and a behind-the-scenes "AMC Backstory" production), a host of Fox Movietonews clips, a pair of stills galleries, a trailer and a thin digibook package which includes full-color pages loaded with pictures and behind-the-scenes info.
Tora! Tora! Tora! may be a bit too dry to match similar historical reenactments (The Longest Day, Gettysburg), but history buffs will be pleased with the way it refuses to allow sensationalism to distort its recreation of the events. The Blu-ray release looks and sounds impressive and offers a fine assortment of supplemental material.
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