Monday, December 7, 2015

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

Director: Richard Fleischer & Toshio Masuda      Writers: Larry Forrester & Hideo Oguni
Film Score: Jerry Goldsmith                                 Cinematography: Charles F. Wheeler & Shinsaku Himeda
Starring: Sô Yamamura, Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall, Wesly Addy and Takahiro Tamura

I was privileged to see this film as a kid, in 1970, in a theater in Seattle that had recently been retrofitted for surround sound. It was a powerful experience that probably more than any other led me to a lifelong interest in World War Two. But Tora! Tora! Tora! is also unique for attempting to present the most balanced account of the Japanese attack possible, by editing together film shot by two different crews, one working in Japan and telling their side of the story, and an American crew telling ours. The result is easily the best account available of that day of infamy, and will unlikely be surpassed because of its completeness and historical accuracy. The film was one of the most expensive in Hollywood history and, because it only made back sixty percent of its cost, it forced studio executive Darryl Zanuck to resign. His vision was to make something of a sequel to The Longest Day about the D-Day invasion of Europe in 1944. While finished in 1969 the project underwent delays in editing the two parts of the film together, as well as the special effects and miniatures that needed to be inserted, which were responsible for the film’s only Oscar win that year. The title of the film comes from an article by Gordon W. Prange, who was able to interview Japanese leaders as well as Americans to give an overall view of the attack.

The film opens with a proclamation of historical accuracy, that the events and characters are actually those who participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The opening credits appear over a ship of Japanese sailors at attention. Their new admiral, Yamamoto, played by Sô Yamamura, has just been put in charge of the naval fleet. The army wants an alliance with Germany, but the navy is against it. Meanwhile Japanese diplomats are trying to decide if it’s worth pulling out of China and risking American intervention, or whether the U.S. will ultimately back down. Though diplomatic ties are still open, the secretary of state Cordell Hull, played by George Macready, believes they have no intent of reaching an agreement and that the Japanese are just stalling for time. Unbeknownst to the Japanese, however, the U.S. has broken their diplomatic code--E.G. Marshall and Wesly Addy are in charge--and can decode their messages faster than their embassy. The problem is that the U.S. military doesn’t trust their own overseas messaging systems, and thus none of the commanders in the Pacific have access to this information. In Hawaii Admiral Kimmel, played by Martin Balsam, has taken over the Pacific Fleet and is warned about the way the ships are bottled up in Pearl Harbor. Yamamoto believes that if Japan goes to war with the U.S., the only chance they have for victory is to destroy the fleet before they can get started, in Pearl Harbor. No one, at first, thought it would ever be a surprise attack.

What changes things is that the Japanese army decided to invade Indo-China, prompting an embargo by the U.S. of all supplies going into Japan. Without fuel and other raw materials, the Japanese would no longer be able to wage war. Thus, the attack on Pearl Harbor became a necessity rather than a contingency. Darryl Zanuck’s intention was to expose the truth in what happened. Along with Admiral Kimmel, the head of security on the islands, General Short played by Jason Robards, were blamed for the lack of preparedness. But the truth is much more complex. Both men were aware of the danger, and suspected as much from the Japanese, but conflicting and incomplete reports from Washington D.C. prevented them from doing what was actually necessary to anticipate and detect the Japanese fleet before it attacked. If Short is responsible for anything, it was his decision to huddle planes together in the middle of the airfields to prevent espionage, allowing them to be decimated by Japanese aircraft. The leader of the assault was Isamu Fujita, played by Takahiro Tamura. He rightly predicted that without the complete destruction of all ships in Pearl, the U.S. would be able to regroup. But Yamamoto knows that it doesn’t matter how many ships at Pearl are destroyed, with all their aircraft carriers still out at sea, the U.S. will be able to mount a comeback anyway, which they would amply demonstrate at Midway.

The direction and cinematography is standard for the day, and the supervision by production manager Elmo Williams forced the Japanese crew to make their footage fit as seamlessly as possible with the American. Initially Akira Kurosawa was hired to shoot the Japanese sequence, but he couldn’t work under such close supervision and left the project. One of the terrific choices by the producers of the film was to leave the Japanese sequences intact and not dub them into English. Subtitles are used and this allows the film to command even more respect for its authenticity. The attack scenes are incredibly well done and realistic, and convey the overwhelming element of surprise the Japanese achieved. Jerry Goldsmith’s score for the film really doesn’t become memorable until just before and during the attack, but it’s nowhere near as iconic as his score for Patton had been earlier that year. The film is a star-studded affair that also includes James Whitmore as Admiral Halsey, Joseph Cotton as Henry Simson, Leon Ames, Richard Anderson, Edward Andrews, and G.D. Spradlin are just some of the other familiar faces. While Tora! Tora! Tora! was critically lauded by historians it did not made a profit for Fox, and didn’t fare well with critics as they felt there was no actual through story to center the plot.

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