Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

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Hello, hello, York? Dolittle. I want you to get twenty-four B-25’s and volunteer crews down to Eglin Field as soon as you can. The job’ll take ’em out of the country for about three months. Tell ’em it’s a secret mission. They won’t know where they’re going until they get there. Thats’s right, volunteers. tell them they’re not to talk to anybody. That’s an order!

In these challenging times and on a day like today (being July 4), I usually watch an old war movie or a John Wayne western. Well, that is if the children cooperate. So this year out came one of the better war films, and believe it or not one of four made about the same event.  The film is 1944’s Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. There isn’t much deep thinking here.  And there really isn’t any lead in the picture.  Spencer Tracy got top billing in most press adverts of the time, but only because his is the biggest “name.”  We also have budding star Robert Mitchum, who slyly dominates the first half of the picture.  This was his breakout role, although he had been the lead in a few “B” westerns prior.  In all reality Van Johnson probably would have the lead, as the bulk of the film, and all of the second half, revolves around him and the crew of his ship, the “Ruptured Duck.”

Perhaps the most historically accurate and least fictionalized account, TSOT has a bunch going for it in addition to the stellar cast.  [The other filmed versions are Bombardier and Destination Tokyo, both from 1943, and Purple Heart from 1944.]  Pedestrian if persistent director Henry Hathaway does a good job here in keeping the pace tight and the plot moving.  There is only a bit of a romantic sidestory but it adds a ‘home-front’ angle to the picture which was needed and appreciated in 1944.

The first half of the picture shows the training the B-25 crews underwent in preparation for their bombing raid on Tokyo.  The second half is the mission itself and subsequent return to the States.  This part really centers on the actions and fate of the crew of the “Ruptured Duck” captained by Ted Lawson (Van Johnson).  The true Ted Lawson was on set for some of the filming as well which surely made for a sobering experience.

Tracy plays Lt. Col. James Doolittle of course, but really never seems to do alot here – which is okay as the movie isn’t really about Doolittle specifically.  Tracy is quiet but powerful and much more in line with the real Doolittle- as opposed to the moronic and abusive character Jerry Bruckheimer puts for in his bomb (no pun intented Pearl Harbor).

This one is highly recommended.  The is nothing flashy here, just a straightforward telling of young men risking their lives for the symbolic significance of bombing the Japanese Home Islands.  And truth be told, in the short term it was a symbolic gesture, as there simply were not enough B-25s in the raid to do significant damage.  However, the raid did force the Japanese to rethink their defensive air operations which resulted in keeping aircraft which may otherwise been used in offensive actions closer to home.

For a movie of this time, there is remarkably little noticeable rear screen projection used.  There also are only a few snippets of actual WW2 combat footage from the raid included in the picture, which avoids the telltale abrupt change in film granularity.  Rather most of the combat action is live, but filmed over Oakland, CA during a purely coincidental fire at the time.  This resulted in some of the spectacular shots, especially those from the nose of the B-25.

There are other tidbits too which are subtle but significant.  During Doolittle’s preraid briefing he speaks from the wardroom of the U.S.S. Hornet.  Behind him is, hanging from the ceiling, an old hornet’s nest.  It sounds sappy but eyewitness accounts of the speech do mention a hornet’s nest in the background.  And to this viewer’s recollection the name of the carrier is never called out in the film, making the nest’s inclusion purely a nod to historical accuracy.  And a poignant one at that as the Hornet was sunk by the Japanese shortly after the raid.

This is almost a perfect war picture.  We aren’t saddled with a full blown romantic thread which would have completely derailed this one. Yes, there are the usual continuity issues – the cowlings on the B-25s change color rather often, but who cares.

Not liking this movie borders on being un-American.  Buy it.  Now.

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