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Tora! Tora! Tora! Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 2001

Tora! Tora! Tora! box art

With "Pearl Harbor" about to attack movie theaters across the nation (and perhaps become the summer's biggest money-maker), there has been a modest revival in the conspiracy theories surrounding the 'Day of Infamy', the Japanese surprise attack on December 7th, 1941 that brought the United States into the Second World War. Over the past six decades, numerous theories have been advanced claiming that President Franklin Roosevelt and his administration had received ample warning about the surprise attack, and chose to deliberately sacrifice Pearl Harbor and the Pacific Fleet which was moored there.

According to these revisionist historians, Roosevelt needed a compelling reason for the United States to join the war effort, and a devastating attack on American soil would convince both the public and an isolationist Congress to support such a move. Over the years, such conspiracy theories have become more elaborate, with some of the more colorful accounts charging that the attack had been jointly organized by Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and the Japanese, or that Americans actually manned some of the attacking planes. However, time and time again, these conspiracy theories have been proven wrong, based on eyewitness testimony, as well as by documentation from Japanese and American sources.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, as envisioned by Tora! Tora! Tora!

In reality, the reasons why the United States suffered such a devastating attack on its own turf are rather mundane, attributed to shortcomings in the areas of people, process, and technology. These failings are examined in depth by "Tora! Tora! Tora!", a 1970 American and Japanese co-production that meticulously dramatizes the attack on Pearl Harbor. And though the narrative is somewhat choppy, as it is essentially a historical highlight reel involving dozens of players and locations, it remains a fascinating film that is executed with the state-of-the-art special effects of the period (which garnered the film an Academy Award).

"Tora! Tora! Tora!" is actually comprised of two films seamlessly interwoven into one. The Japanese segments were originally to be filmed by acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa, but the task eventually went to directors Kinji Fukasaku (who recently helmed the controversial Japanese box office smash "Battle Royale") and Toshio Masuda (who also directed an installment in the "Space Battlecruiser Yamato" franchise). The American segments were the handiwork of Richard Fleischer, who eventually went on to direct "Conan the Destroyer" and "Red Sonja". Working with a budget of $25 million (which was huge for 1970), the filmmakers trace the events leading up to the fateful day, from the initial planning to the devastating attack itself, which was initiated by the titular battle cry.

On the Japanese end, we learn that the surprise attack is a long-standing practice in Japanese military doctrine, and that the Japanese felt compelled to attack the United States as a means of securing much-needed oil, metal, and rubber resources needed to fuel their continuing four-year long invasion of China. There were also internal schisms within the Japanese military, between the Army and the Navy, as well as between the 'old guard', who still believed in the infallibility of naval power, and a new generation of military strategists, who saw air power as the key to victory on the modern battlefield.

The Japanese military plan the attack on Pearl Harbor

Meanwhile, on the American end, a number of key failures and limitations in the areas of people, process, and technology in the American military contributed to the catastrophic losses resulting from the attack. Though the Americans had anticipated an escalation of Japanese military actions in the Pacific, they mistakenly believed that such actions would be limited to the Philippines, Thailand, or Borneo, and the possibility of hostilities in Hawaii was remote. Because of this mindset, there was a scarcity of resources made available for the defense of Pearl Harbor. For example, a shortage of aircraft restricted the number of air patrols around Oahu, allowing the Japanese carrier strike force, traveling under radio silence, to amass within striking distance, directly north of the island.

Lt. General Walter C. Short (the late Jason Robards of "Magnolia", who was actually in Pearl Harbor in 1941 during the attack), who was in charge of defending the Pacific Fleet and Hawaii from attack, ordered all fighter planes to be kept in close quarters in the middle of the airfield in order to prevent sabotage, which he considered to be the most likely enemy action. Unfortunately, by doing so, he actually made it easier for the Japanese to destroy the planes on the ground.

Though they had access to long-range radar equipment, local laws and jurisdictional conflicts prevented the Navy from deploying them in optimal locations for detecting the Japanese fleet. And even when a poorly trained radar operator lucked out in spotting a large formation of planes headed towards the island, his observation was mistakenly attributed to an incoming formation of American bombers.

Though American intelligence was able to intercept and decode a transmission between Tokyo and its embassies that suggested an attack was imminent, key decision makers were unavailable due to it being a weekend, thereby slowing the dissemination of vital information. This bureaucratic morass was further exacerbated by the unreliable and slow communications channels of the time. As a result, a general alert did not reach the military brass at Pearl Harbor until the attack was already well underway.

With a story of such immense scope, the cast is enormous, though many of the players only get a few minutes of screen time. In addition to a young Jason Robards, Martin Balsam ("Catch-22") appears as Admiral Kimmel, the commander of the Pacific Fleet, while Soh Yamamura (who would end up appearing in "Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah" in 1998) plays Admiral Yamamoto, who was commander of the Japanese strike force. Interestingly enough, one historical figure who shows up in the film for a brief moment is Dorie Miller, who was a lowly cook that defended his shipmates during the attack. Despite mistreatment by white sailors, as well as a lack of formal training, Miller got behind an anti-aircraft gun and shot down two planes, resulting in the first Naval Cross ever awarded to an African American. For those of you who have watched, or plan to watch "Pearl Harbor", this real-life war hero is played in the new film by Cuba Gooding, Jr.

Full-scale physical effects were used in making Tora! Tora! Tora!

Taking into consideration that it was made before the advent of computer graphics, and even before the special effects advances of the "Star Wars" movies, the visual effects "Tora! Tora! Tora!" are outstanding, combining the use of miniatures and full-scale physical effects. While director Michael Bay makes extensive use of CGI to vividly recreate the attack in "Pearl Harbor", the special effects team for "Tora! Tora! Tora!" often used full-scale mock-ups. The Japanese Zeros were built from American AT-6 and BT-3 trainers (some of which still fly today in private collections), the American P-40s destroyed on the ground were full-scale models with working parts, as was Yamamoto's battleship, while two-thirds of the top deck of the aircraft carrier Akagi were recreated for the film. Thus, when you see an airman narrowly miss being crushed by an exploding P-40, or a squadron of Zeros swooping down towards their target, you are essentially seeing the 'real thing', with no digital trickery involved.

For moviegoers caught up in the pre-release marketing hype of "Pearl Harbor", or those who would like to see a more balanced and historically-accurate portrayal of events on the 'Day of Infamy', then "Tora! Tora! Tora!" makes an excellent piece of companion viewing. Though it wanders more into docu-drama territory, with its often dry and clinical dissection of the Pearl Harbor attack, it remains an impressive cinematic achievement, even after thirty years. And with Twentieth Century Fox's re-release of the film on a Special Edition DVD, "Tora! Tora! Tora!" has never looked better.

Images courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox. All rights reserved.

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