Tora! Tora! Tora!

| December 9, 2011

In 1970, director Richard Fleischer set out to make an objective World War II film, one that would not vilify the Japanese at the expense of the exaltation of American valor and would instead merely present the facts as they happened. The new 20th Century Fox Blu-ray release of the film calls it “meticulously researched and painstakingly authentic,” and the only additional descriptive statement I would add would be “breathtakingly shot.” Not only is the film a testament to historical objectivity and narrative magnanimity, it is also a definitive raising of the bar in action films. Being a big studio picture, the combination of realistic choreography and amazing cinematography drove the final nail in the coffin of the old-school war picture, with its goofy sound effects and terribly unconvincing stock footage and miniature work. Tora! Tora! Tora! follows in the footsteps of the heraldic WWII classic Thirty Seconds over Tokyo with its commitment to realistic action, resulting in one of the most spectacular of all “old Hollywood” action sequences.
Tora! Tora! Tora! begins with a stunning opening credits sequence, scored to legendary composer Jerry Goldsmith’s brilliant original score and featuring imagery of Japanese soldiers aboard the battleship Nagato. The opening scene depicts the appointment of Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Sō Yamamura) to his new position as Commander-in-Chief of Japan’s Combined Fleet. This beginning scene sets the stage for the remainder of the film, as it will continually alternate between the Japanese preparations for their attack on Pearl Harbor to the American atmosphere of ignorance and obstinacy leading all the way up to that fateful December morning. Indeed, perhaps the most shocking aspect of this admirable film is not just its historical objectivity in the sense of being equally complementary to both sides; more accurately, the historical objectivity is descriptive of the way Fleischer was equally condemning of both sides. The final takeaway from the film is not how the Japanese were vicious and maniacal bloodhounds as compared to the completely innocent and noble Americans. Strangely, considering the film’s mainstream, A-list status, the final takeaway was of the tragically calamitous nature of the entire affair, both sides guilty of astronomical ignorance and aplomb.
Respected for refusing to scapegoat either General Walter Short (Jason Robards) or Admiral Husband Edward Kimmel (Martin Balsam), two men to whom history has not been kind, this refusal makes way for a much more provocative condemnation of the general dunderheadedness on the part of the entire American military community. From miscommunications and erroneous intelligence reports to arrogant superior officers and plain skepticism, Fleischer depicts the attack on Pearl Harbor as 100% preventable, less the result of masterful Japanese strategy and more American fatuity. Most commendable, however, is how Fleischer, in spite of his less-than-positive portrayal of the American response to the impending attack, redeems all involved by depicting the sincerity of the reactions of all American military personnel involved. Perhaps the most affecting shot in the film finds Balsam, having just exited his home on the island after being notified of the attack, looking out and seeing the horrifying devastation, the locale’s recherché replaced by fiery explosions lighting up the morning sky.
In spite of the sincerity on Fleischer’s part in his handling of the story, the film’s main attraction is unquestionably the attack scene, and deservedly so. Tora! Tora! Tora! quite possibly boasts the most breathtaking aerial cinematography on film. The shots of the Japanese planes leaving their ship at dawn and flying to their destination as day breaks around them are stunning, while the choreography of the bombings include excellent shots both from the air and from on the ground.
In every respect, from the script to the performances to the visuals, Tora! Tora! Tora! is a laudable achievement in filmmaking. Nominated for five Oscars, including a win for Visual Effects, Tora! Tora! Tora! is an exceptional film that has now been given a Blu-ray release that matches the quality of the film. Including a booklet charting the film’s production and brief biographical information on the real military figures and the actors who portrayed them, the Blu-ray also includes two fascinating documentaries. Day of Infamy is an engrossing historical account of the real Pearl Harbor attack, while History versus Hollywood – Tora! Tora! Tora!: A Giant Awakes documents the production of the film and its historical accuracy (and it is narrated by Burt Reynolds).
While there has been no shortage of iconic WWII films produced over the last seven decades, a viewing of this classic in its exquisite new Blu-ray release will make it easy to see why Tora! Tora! Tora! has earned its place alongside the best films of its kind.

About the Author:

Kyle Barrowman is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at Columbia College in Chicago. In addition to his work for Film Monthly, he has previously published essays for Cashiers du Cinemart, Offscreen, and The International Journal of Žižek Studies, on subjects ranging from film noir to Alfred Hitchcock, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Lee.
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