Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor was a world-changer, the United States thrust into World War II in a flash. Released in 1970, Tora! Tora! Tora! takes an almost documentary look at one of the most horrific days in American history.
In 1941, World War II is raging across Europe, Adolf Hitler's army marching and conquering all over the continent. In Japan, a new commander, Admiral Yamamoto (So Yamamura), has been named in the Japanese Navy with huge plans in play. Negotiations have been going on for months with the America and will continue for months to come. The American fleet all over the Pacific waits and braces for an attack that many believe is imminent while American intelligence back in Washington D.C. tries to decipher countless pieces of information, clues and evidence that will point to Japan's intentions. Will the Japanese attack? At the navy base at Pearl Harbor in the Hawaiian islands, Admiral Himmel (Martin Balsam) tries to decide what to do next. As the end of November 1941 nears, a meticulous Japanese plan of attack is put into action; much of the fleet sailing toward Pearl Harbor to unleash a surprise attack that hopes to cripple the American navy.
From director Richard Fleischer, with Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda directing the Japanese sequences, 'Tora' is the anti-Longest Day. While that 1962 epic told the true story of the D-Day invasion at Normandy with an epic cast of Hollywood legends, 'Tora' goes for the true story angle but without the star power. Fleischer and Co. are interested in the details, the history, the build-up, the intelligence, the government responses, all those little things that history buffs will eat up. It takes a little while to get going -- clocking in at 144 minutes overall -- but it is never dull and once it finds its rhythm, the momentum gets going in a big way. This was a movie that struggled in American theaters but was a huge hit in Japanese theaters. Why is that you ask?
Well, the true story of the attack on Pearl Harbor is hard to believe in itself. There's no way it should have worked on so many levels. That's where 'Tora' is special. The Japanese surprise attack was a brilliant military plan, a reliance on air power leading to the success and that almost complete surprise on the American naval base. From the American side, any number of people and issues impacted the attack. Intelligence reports were handled slowly and sent to the wrong people and places. When the radar spotted the hundreds of Japanese fighters, reports were ignored. It's an amazing series of events, Fleischer's movie interested in all those little things. 'Tora' finds its groove near the hour-mark as the attack becomes imminent. The shots of the Japanese fighters and bombers taking off from carrier decks in the pre-dawn darkness as the sun rises in front of them are eerie, oddly beautiful and intensely uncomfortable as we know what their plan will accomplish.
That's the movie at it's absolute best. Nominated for five Academy Awards, 'Tora' won the award for Best Special Effects. Why? Because of the extended attack on Pearl Harbor, bringing one of the darkest moments in American history to life. The Pearl Harbor sequence is remarkable, starting about the 100-minute mark. The amount of ground it covers is remarkable from the attacks on Battleship Row to Hickam Field and anything and everything in between of military importance. The camera films from ground level to put the American POV in perspective while also filming in the air to give the view the Japanese pilots saw as they attacked. The sequence of the Japanese planes flying across Hawaii to Pearl Harbor especially resonated with me in terms of the reality of what we're watching. Amazing aerial sequences, some incredible stuntwork, and composer Jerry Goldsmith's score boosting it all up a notch, this is a sequence that works on all levels. It brings the horrors of the real-life incident to life to the point it is uncomfortable to watch. A great sequence.
With hopes of leaving the focus on the true story of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the cast was filled out with recognizable, respected actors who didn't exactly have star power. Among the high-ranking American military, look for Balsam, James Whitmore and Jason Robards, and with the Intelligence, E.G. Marshall and Wesley Addy. Among the Japanese there's Yamamura as Admiral Yamamoto with Takahiro Tamura as the flight commander leading the attack on Pearl with and Eijiro Tono as the Admiral leading the attack group across the Pacific toward Hawaii. There's gotta be a 100 or so speaking roles so far too many to mention here, but also look for Joseph Cotten, Richard Anderson and Neville Brand among many others.
An interesting movie basically across the board. Told from both the American and Japanese perspectives on seemingly countless levels, you get an excellent sense of the events leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, the actual attack, and the immediate fallout. It ends on a somber note, the world truly thrust into the war at this point on an international level, Yamamoto expressing his thoughts. "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and filled it with a terrible resolve." Profound words and a fitting end to the movie.
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970): ***/****