Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo Review
The attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7th 1941 was a tremendous psychological blow for America, catching the military on the back foot and thrusting the country into a war for which it had little enthusiasm. It’s not surprising then that the early days of the conflict, when the battles in the Pacific took so many lives, exercised a particular fascination for Hollywood. At first, the task was to find good news amidst the carnage, as the Howard Hawks film Air Force demonstrated. Later, once the tide turned in 1944 and good news began to warm the hearts on the home front, the task of the studios was to celebrate the courage of those who had suffered through the dog days of 1942. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is a very typical example of this type of film; packed with selfless heroism, military brilliance and not a hint of the self-examination and subtle criticism which began to surface once the war was over in films such as John Ford’s remarkable They Were Expendable.
Mervyn LeRoy’s film tells the story of the daring Doolittle raid of April 1942, a low-altitude assault on Japan which involved a squadron of sixteen B-25 planes. It was intensely dangerous, almost insanely so, but it had the kind of strategic imagination which was so necessary in creating the Allied victory. Like most such plans, it touched failure more than once with a forced landing in China and a trek to safety through occupied territory. But the story was a propaganda coup which provided good news at a time when it was scarce. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo tells the story as it appeared in Colliers Magazine and in the book by the mission’s leader Ted Lawson, and does so in remarkably plodding fashion, although the classic structure – training, mission, disaster, triumph against the odds – does at least keep the interest engaged for long enough so that the viewer can enjoy some absolutely stunning special effects work by A. Arnold Gillespie and A. D. Flowers. The miniatures are some of the best you’ll see in any film of the period and they won a well deserved Academy Award.
Considering the period in which the movie was made, and the tendency for war films to turn into outright murderous fantasy, there is considerable respect for historical accuracy. Certainly the film demonstrates a lot more fidelity to the facts than Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour which uses it for a gung-ho climax without bothering to get the details even tangentially right. The men on the planes are mostly represented as cocky individuals, most of them natural comedians, but they all get together to get the job done, even if it means breaking a few regulations on the side. They risk death and danger for their country without the slightest hesitation, even when its possible that their planes aren’t up to the job. Every man is a role model, none more so than Ted Lawson, the pilot of the ‘Ruptured Duck’. Van Johnson plays the part in a more subdued manner than the rest of the cast which is probably realistic but doesn’t make him a particularly charismatic figure although he does gain our sympathy when he loses a leg towards the end of the film. Generally, however, Johnson is far better in Command Decision and Battleground. It doesn’t help that he’s landed with some unspeakable domestic scenes with wife Phyllis Thaxter, the kind of character whose invitation to bed is more likely to result in an offer of hot milk and cookies rather than any hanky panky. The wife is pregnant, of course, upping the ante. Johnson is also hindered by the fact that he’s surrounded by more interesting actors, none more so than Robert Walker, already stealing scenes like a master criminal, and a very young Robert Mitchum who is eighth billed. Mitchum already demonstrates his ability to add layers to characters who have no depth in the screenplay and his performance here led to a contract with RKO and, subsequently, to his important role in The Story of G.I. Joe.
The lead-up to the mission takes an awfully long time and Mervyn LeRoy seems more comfortable with the sentimentality than with the macho training stuff. There’s a particularly touching sequence at the last dance which is very well staged with some languorous camera moves and a genuine touch of elegy when Auld Lang Syne is played. I’m not a fan of LeRoy as a director. Although his work as head of production at MGM is indisputably brilliant and early films such as Little Caesar work well, his later movies seem too often to spill into the lachrymose and, worse, the tedious. Too often, pacing escapes him and he dawdles about as if unable to find the point of what he’s trying to do. His skill is largely with actors and he obviously loves them, sometimes to the point of being unable to restrain them; this means that his best work is in irresistibly melodramatic gush like Random Harvest where he was able to indulge Greer Garson and Ronald Colman to his hearts content. Once Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo gets going, its quite entertaining but it takes a hell of a long time to find its niche.
When I discussed Air Force, I mentioned the racism which prevailed throughout. There’s less of that here, possibly because the war was going much better and there was less need to identify the Japanese as personifications of pure evil. But there are things which seem a little uncomfortable now, notably the dismissal of the moral issue of civilian bombing. Spencer Tracy has the small role of Lt.Col. James Doolittle and gets to say macho things like “You’re gonna do things with a B-25 that you thought were impossible” but also indicates that anyone with any qualms about killing innocent people should drop out straightaway. When an actor with the authority of Tracy says this, it seems completely reasonable and, of course, in 1944 it probably seemed the only thing to do. But sixty years later, it doesn’t sit well with a more liberally minded viewer – especially if you consider that the raid might possibly (and note my qualification) have been more a publicity stunt than a necessary part of American military strategy. Still, liberal qualms and Hollywood war movies from the mid-1940s don’t go well together, so it’s usually best to quell them. At its worst, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is slow, fussy and maudlin. But occasionally, particularly during the raid itself, it’s a fine example of Hollywood craftsmanship and a fine tribute to some very brave men.
The print used for the transfer is in remarkably good condition, more so than one would expect considering the age of the film. There is a small amount of print damage – speckling and occasional minor scratching- but in some respects it looks as if it could have been made a couple of decades later. The level of contrast is superb throughout and detail is note-perfect with particularly crisp shadow detail. This is one of the best transfers in the set. The mono soundtrack is, as with the other films in the box, more than acceptable with dialogue clarity shining through. The music score, seemingly made up largely of source music, sounds fine.
There are, as with Air Force, a few nice extras. We get a Technicolor cartoon featuring Barney Bear called Bear Raid Warden which is in excellent condition with lovely, bright colours. There’s a Passing Parade short called A Lady Fights Back which tells the story of a ship from her point of view and an amusing eleven minute “Pete Smith Specialty” called Movie Pests which demonstrates that cinema audiences have always been bloody annoying. A minor point of interest is that this piece was co-written by Harry Parke, aka Parkyakarkus, who was the father of Albert Brooks. Finally, there’s a very pompous trailer for the film which hopefully – and need I say erroneously - suggests that it’s the greatest work in the history of MGM.
The extras are not subtitled but the main feature is. As with the other films in this box, there is no scene selection menu.