DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Tora, Tora, Tora

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Tora, Tora, Tora

Tora, Tora, Tora (1970) dir. Richard Fleischer
Starring: So Yamamura, E.G. Marshall, James Whitmore, Martin Balsam, Jason Robards, Tatsuya Mihashi, Joseph Cotton


By Alan Bacchus

What a terrific picture this is despite being considered a failure in its day, perhaps because of the concerted attempt to de-heroize the era and create a realistic portrait of war from both sides of the battle. If anything, the matter-of-fact modus operandi at play here reminds me of Paul Greengrass’s procedural approach to 9/11 in United 93. This picture is utterly believable and because of the hefty budget the production values are virtually invisible to its age.

The title, which Hollywood execs probably fought the filmmakers on, refers to the Japanese code word for the green light given to attack on that fateful day of December 7, 1941. Under the meticulous research efforts and strong adherence to historical credibility, Tora Tora Tora by proxy represents an antidote to the shameless tragedy-turned popcorn entertainment Jerry Bruckheimer/Michael Bay version a few years ago.

Among other things, what separates Michael Bay from Richard Fleischer here is the fact that Fleischer and company believe wholeheartedly in the drama and power of the event, as opposed to manufactured character-based dramas injected into the story. Without the distraction of a brotherly battle between troops, a black cook who overcomes racial prejudice to become a hero on the day or a romantic dalliance between a pilot and a nurse, the riveting day-by-day, minute-by-minute details leading up to the attack is pure cinema, as tense and thrilling as any genre film can create.

The film goes back months before the attack to the planning stage from the Japanese point of view and the systematic piecing together of details by the Americans. If anything, the dual storylines feel like the cat and mouse chase in the Day of Jackal. In that picture, the Jackal and his pursuers begin far apart, but gradually become closer together as the picture goes along. Unfortunately, we can't fictionalize an ending in this case. In the magnificently staged action climax, a 45-minute long attack sequence, it's Hollywood destruction at its finest.

With that said, there is something missing in the emotional detachment. In United 93, it was the fine editing work that created a singular moment of pain and triumph felt by the audience in the very last frame. Of course, in this film WWII has just started for the United States, so closure would have been impossible without such Bruckheimer dramatic manufacturing.

The producers famously recruited Japanese directors Kinji Fukasaku (who would go on to direct Battle Royale in his older age) and Toshio Masuda to direct the Japanese sequences. This is more than a gimmick. Admirably, the Japanese side is humanized as much as possible. Sure the Imperial army and its commanders are certainly made out to be power-hungry strategists looking to expand their control of the ocean, but the rationale for the attack is sufficiently justified. And the doubt expressed by many of its leaders creates a powerful inner conflict from this opposing side.

The American side of the story focuses on the various generals, chiefs of staff and other officers piecing together the Japanese plan. Accurately, the attack is never portrayed as a true 'surprise' attack, nor is there any embellishment of conspiracy theories about the Americans' pre-conceived knowledge of the attack. Again, the filmmakers always land on the side of realism and the truth.

Sadly, Tora Tora Tora is rarely ever spoken of in terms of the great war films in history. Perhaps it’s because of lingering effects of the film's perceived failure and its budget overruns. But discard these notions and discover this terrific picture.

Tora Tora Tora is available on Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

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