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TORA! TORA! TORA!

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Martin Balsam, Joseph Cotton, E.G. Marshall, Soh Yamamura, Koreya Senda, Jason Robards
Directors: Richard Fleischer, Kinji Fukasaku, Toshio Masuda
Audio: English and Japanese
Subtitles: English, Spanish
Video: Color, anamorphic widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: 20th-Century Fox
Features: Commentary, Day of Infamy featurette, trailer
Length: 145 minutes
Release Date: July 12, 2001

"I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve."

Film ***

December 7, 1941 is a date whose significance has been ingrained into the American collective consciousness.  Prior to this day, the United States had historically been an isolationist nation.  Woodrow Wilson had been re-elected to the presidency in 1916 upon a platform of keeping the nation out of the first world war.  Years later, even the outbreak of another war in Europe during Franklin Roosevelt's presidency could not initially persuade America from a stance of neutrality.  Public sentiment soon changed, however, after Japan's sudden and devastating attack upon Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  Thereafter, the scope of the war would not only be altered, but this seminal event in U.S. history would signal an inevitable shift of U.S. policy from isolationism into one embracing a more significant leading role in the post-war global politics.

The attack upon Pearl Harbor has been re-enacted many times in the cinema since the conclusion of World War II.  Notable entries have included classics like From Here to Eternity and modern Hollywood blockbusters like Pearl Harbor.  However the 1970 film Tora! Tora! Tora! remains unique among such films, for not only was it the first to portray the conflict from both sides objectively and accurately, but it was also the first historic co-production between American and Japanese filmmakers.

Tora! Tora! Tora! was the brainchild of Fox studio head Darryl Zanuck.  He envisioned it as a follow-up to Fox's The Longest Day (1962), a critical and popular hit about D-Day.  Tora! Tora! Tora!, extrapolating from the published research of authoritative WWII historian Gordon Prange, was to be an epic docu-drama on a scale rarely seen before in cinema.

Production responsibility was split between Japanese and American studios. Originally, Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, who had helped to script the original four hundred-page screenplay, was to have helmed the Japanese portions of the film.  However, during the early stages of filming, nervous Fox executives, faced with the staggering production before them, decided to replace Kurosawa.  They feared that his idiosyncratic directorial style was not suitable for the WWII action genre.

To replace him, the Fox studio recruited two other Japanese directors.  Kinji Fukasaku would direct most of the Japanese action and process shots, while Toshio Masuda, who had once trained as a Kamikaze pilot and already have some experience directing war pictures, would handle the dramatic scenes.  On the opposite shore, Richard Fleischer, who had demonstrated his skill in the action genre with such big-budget films as 40,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Fantastic Voyage, would direct the American sequences.

Tora! Tora! Tora! was divided into two portions - a slow build-up leading to the fateful attack itself.  During the first half, the film sets up the Japanese rationale for attacking the United States.  Japan, in the 1930's, was a strongly imperialistic nation.  Starting in 1931, Japan would absorb Manchuria into its empire, the first step in a campaign to conquer all of China.  By 1941, Japan had occupied all of Indochina, and its Tripartate pact with Nazi Germany and Italy would further solidify Japan's position as a world power.

The United States at this time held important economic interests in Asia and thus was becoming increasingly alarmed by Japanese actions in that theater.  Although the U.S. remained as yet neutral, it sought to provide some degree of military and financial aid to China and, more importantly, to impose an embargo of oil and other raw materials to Japan.   Unfortunately, these precautionary steps were not echoed in the American Pacific Fleet, whose generally poor level of preparedness is depicted accurately in the film.

Japan, lacking natural resources, viewed the U.S. embargo as a threat to its economic growth.  Without oil, the Japanese war machinery could not hope to sustain its existence and would come to a halt within months.  Japan's solution was to seize the resource-rich territories of Southeast Asia and Indonesia.  To ensure that American interference would not impede this expansion, Japan formulated a bold plan to pre-emptively destroy the strength of the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor.

Tora! Tora! Tora!'s first half documents the intense preparations by the Japanese fleet, from practice torpedo runs to bombing raids on Pearl Harbor mock-up sites.  The actual attack itself is re-enacted in the film's second half, with the launch of the first Japanese airwave upon the fleet's arrival into adjacent waters near Pearl Harbor.

This Japanese fleet, under the command of Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, was comprised of six heavy aircraft carriers accompanied by two dozen supporting vessels, plus several submarines.  On Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, around 7:30 A.M., the six carriers positioned 250 miles from the shores of Oahu launched a wave of over 180 attack aircraft.  Just before 8 A.M., this first wave of torpedo bombers, dive bombers, horizontal bombers and fighters arrived at Pearl Harbor and quickly attacked airfields to minimize possible aerial retaliation.  The Navy air bases at Ford Island and Kaneohe Bay, the Marine airfield at Ewa and the Army Air Corps fields at Bellows, Wheeler and Hickam were soon all decimated.

The concurrent attack on the harbor was on-going, and by 8 A.M., Pearl Harbor itself was ablaze in flames and black smoke.  Just after 8 A.M., USS Arizona was fatally struck by a torpedo that pierced through four decks into the magazine store, igniting a terrible explosion.  In a matter of minutes, the mighty battleship would sink, taking with it over a thousand casualties.

By 8:55 A.M., the second wave of Japanese planes arrived, encountering a wing of American B-17 bombers arriving from the mainland.  The bombers, unarmed and nearly out of fuel, were defenseless against the Japanese assault and forced to land quickly.  Elsewhere, six American fighter planes managed to become airborne, putting up token resistance.  However, the second Japanese wave was still able to catch USS Nevada as it attempted to pull out of the harbor.  After sustaining heavy damage from the Japanese planes, the Nevada was forced to beach itself to avoid sinking in shallow waters and blocking the harbor.

A third wave of Japanese planes never arrived.  The element of surprise now lost, this wave was aborted, and the Japanese fleet retired from the battle to return home safely, having completely avoided detection.  The Japanese lost only twenty-nine Japanese planes shot down over Pearl Harbor, and no Japanese surface ships were even damaged.

The American fleet losses were, by comparison, quite terrible.  Sunk or damaged were the battleships USS Arizona, USS California, USS Maryland, USS Nevada, USS Oklahoma, USS Pennsylvania, USS Tennessee, USS West Virginia, and USS Utah, an ex-battleship.  Also included among the vessels sunk or damaged were three cruisers and four destroyers.  Aircraft losses totaled 188 destroyed and 159 damaged.  American dead numbered 2,403, with 1,178 military and civilian wounded.

Many poor decisions on the part of American leaders contributed to this level of destruction.  Despite ominous tidings on the American side, overseas commanders were routinely kept in the dark.  Important messages, relating to partially broken Japanese codes, were delayed in their transmission.  Early radar warnings from Opana Point were ignored.  Security was lax, as American leaders generally refused to believed that Pearl Harbor, being so distant from Japan, was in any real danger of being attacked.

American losses were not complete, however.  Three carriers were not in port at the time and so escaped destruction.  The shoreside facilities at the Pearl Harbor Naval Base also remained intact and would later help to facilitate quick repairs upon the salvageable ships.  Oil reserves were not hit, either.

At 10:30 A.M. Honolulu time, a half-hour about the brunt of the attack had been completed, Japanese officially declared war on American and Britain.  Tora! Tora! Tora! concludes with a shot of Admiral Yamamoto, commander of the Japanese fleet, looking into the eastern horizon.  The closing shot, as the credits roll, is a devastating one of the Pacific fleet in flames and defeat at Pearl Harbor.

Tora! Tora! Tora! possesses a stellar, all-star cast, including Martin Balsam as Admiral Kimmel and So Yamamura as Admiral Yamamoto, but the film is not really an actor's film or even an ensemble film.  It is a docu-drama that does not deviate into obtrusive (or fictional) romantic love triangles and unnecessary character development scenes.  Introductions to the historical characters are brief, so familiarity with these individuals will serve the viewer well.  Although sometimes accused of being dry, Tora! Tora! Tora!'s authenticity is the source of its strength, drawing cinematic suspense and drama from the historic events, which are depicted fairly accurately in the film.

Today, watching Tora! Tora! Tora! is still quite absorbing.  What makes the extended attack sequence so much more satisfying than, for example, Disney's recent Pearl Harbor is that everything seen on-film is tangential and real.  Many of the ships were truly massive scale models, photographed quite convincingly.  Others, like a "Japanese" carrier, were authentic WWII vessels (since no actual Japanese ships survived the war, an American carrier was substituted during an impressive launch sequence).  The dozens of war planes, screaming out of the skies to strafe grounded aircraft, were all quite real and quite dangerous.  When hangers or planes (mostly P-40s and Catalinas) blew up, the explosions were authentic, complete with flying shrapnel that came perilously close to injuring cast and crew.

Audiences today have grown too jaded to computer graphics.  As such, our awareness that the action in Tora! Tora! Tora! is real and not computer-generated allows us to better appreciate the true craftsmanship of this film.  Indeed, if some of these scenes seem strangely familiar, that is because they have been copied (or hijacked outright) in films like Star Wars, Independence Day, and Pearl Harbor.

Tora! Tora! Tora! was made in the midst of the Cold War.  At a then-astronomical cost of $25-30 million, it cost more than what Japan had actually spent on the entire attack itself.  Tora! Tora! Tora! did moderate business at the U.S. box office but was a huge hit in Japan.  Most significantly, the film re-ignited concerns about the possibility of another surprise attack someday upon American soil and heralded a new wave of WWII films in the 1970's, including Midway and A Bridge Too Far.

Hopefully, the film's conclusion will not be a surprise to viewers who were attentive enough in high school history classes.  Rather than diluting our appreciation of this historic event, our pre-knowledge of the eventual outcome of the attack helps us to truly appreciate the significance and resonance of the Pearl Harbor attack.

BONUS TRIVIA: The authenticity of the dangerous action sequences was not without consequence.  One stunt person died during practice rehearsals after his plane crashed into a hillside.  Another crashed while transporting his plane to location.

Video ***

Tora! Tora! Tora! was originally photographed in Panavision, and that widescreen format is replicated for this DVD.  Colors are solid, with realistic skin tone and seamless process shots.  The detail levels are sharp though not equal to that of more modern films.  The transfer is quite stable with minimal dust or debris marks and only moderate grain.  The bit rate averages around 6 Mbps.

Japanese sequences throughout the film have English subtitles burned into the print.  Elsewhere, the subtitles are optional.

Audio ***

English audio is available in a THX-certified surround 4.1 track that packs impressive punch.  Explosions and the roar of flying planes create a resounding aural environment.  For a film over three decades old, Tora! Tora! Tora! sounds great.  An alternate French 1.0 track is also available.

The score is minimal but effectively employed, especially during the end credits played over the destruction of Pearl Harbor.  During the main attack, however, the score is absent, which allows the on-screen action to speak for itself in an almost-documentary fashion.

Features **

There a few brief extras on this disc.  First, the featurette Day of Infamy (20 min.) discusses the events leading up to the Pearl Harbor attack.  It elaborates upon circumstances mentioned or alluded to in the film and as such is a nice companion piece to the film.

Better yet is the commentary track by director Richard Fleischer and Japanese film historian Stewart Galbraith.  Fleischer discusses how the early incompatibility between the American and Japanese styles of filmmaking and acting was resolved.  Galbraith is a wealth of information about the directors and their filmographies.  Many of the best anecdotes concern the pilots and some of the action sequences.  Fleischer describes the many dangerous stunts - an aborted collapse of the USS Arizona mast, a full-scale crash of a Japanese Zero into a hanger, a spectacular landing by a damaged B-17, and various astounding dog fights.  Most infamous is his recount of a stunt plane that had veered out of control on an airfield with planes filled with explosives; the subsequent explosion (and flying propeller) sent stuntmen scrambling for their lives.  Miraculously, no one was injured, and this scene actually appears in the film!  Fleischer also elaborates upon the ships and models and the complicated logistics of filming the air wave formations and action sequences.

Lastly, a trailer for Tora! Tora! Tora! is included on the disc.

BONUS TRIVIA:  "Tora! Tora! Tora!" (meaning "Tiger! Tiger! Tiger!") was the code used by Japanese pilots over Pearl Harbor to signal the start of the attack.

Summary:

Young movie-goers today may be familiar with the attack on Pearl Harbor mostly from the recent Hollywood blockbuster.  But true war-film enthusiasts recognize Tora! Tora! Tora! as the more historically accurate and intellectually-compelling film.  If you're interested more in history than in fiction, re-experience the true courage of America's fighting forces, even in defeat, in Tora! Tora! Tora!.

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