When it premiered in the fall of 1970, film critic, Vincent Canby eviscerated 2oth Century-Fox’s epic recreation of Pearl Harbor as Tora-ble! Tora-ble! Tor-able! In actuality, director, Richard Fleischer’s monumental undertaking was a little worse for its strict adherence to historical fact, though undeniably steeped in integrity. Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) would break some steadfast rules in Hollywood and nearly cripple the financial backbone of its studio; weighing in at $25 million; a decidedly cringe-worthy sum that left Production VP, Richard Zanuck white-knuckled and numb. Along this road to infamy, producer, Elmo Williams encountered threats, the untimely death of his safety supervisor, Jack Canary, and, some utterly bizarre behavior from the film’s original co-director, Akira Kurosawa, whose unorthodox casting of the Japanese portion and methodical pacing threatened to push the studio into the red. Tora! Tora! Tora! was, in fact, Fox’s costliest film after the notorious overruns on Cleopatra (1963). It would emerge a far weightier tome to history than anyone expected.
Attempting to keep the budget in check and maintain some semblance of order, Richard Zanuck cast the American side of this WWII epic with a stellar roster of Hollywood’s tried and true character actors; cheaper and less problematic to handle than stars. Yet, there is something to be said for ‘star power’ or lack thereof – particularly when the stakes for a colossal hit are so high. In fact, Fox could not have been in more dire straits going into Tora! Tora! Tora!, having squandered the millions made by The Sound of Music (1965) and Planet of the Apes (1968) on a string of gargantuan road shows, including Doctor Doolittle (1967), Star! (1968) and Hello Dolly! (1969) – all rightfully regarded as classic movies today, but catastrophic flops in their own time - each threatening to close the studio’s doors for good.
There are two irrefutable facts about Tora! Tora! Tora! worth mentioning: first, it is likely the most accurately researched, meticulously focused and unbiased recreation of the bombing of Pearl Harbor ever depicted on film; and second, the producers’ strict adherence to history itself, while undoubtedly adding a fascinating layer to its documentarian style, hampered the film’s overall appeal as boffo big screen entertainment. Tora! Tora! Tora! was the impassioned brainchild of Darryl F. Zanuck; considered a valiant successor to the old maverick’s The Longest Day (1962) – a war epic that had helped rescue Fox after Cleopatra’s mind-numbing debacles in Rome. Yet, Tora! Tora! Tora! was presented with a quandary; namely, how to illustrate in graphic detail a moment from history largely regarded as America’s embarrassing defeat without alienating its target audience.
As Richard Zanuck had suspected, the picture did better in Tokyo where it was regarded as something of a masterpiece; the initial fervor created by Fox’s aggressive – and expensive – marketing campaign, nevertheless unable to salvage the movie’s box office fall off after its opening weekend. In truth, Richard Zanuck had not wanted to make Tora! Tora! Tora!, primarily because of its prohibitive budget; also, due to logistic concerns. How to amass a wartime surplus of military supplies – tanks, planes, personnel etc. et al. would be left to producer, Elmo Williams who had been successful at brokering favor with the U.S. State Department for Darryl Zanuck’s The Longest Day and who would again, cajole an impressive loan out of nearly every conceivable prop required to make this picture. As Japan’s declaration of surrender had accounted for their dismantling all implements of war, the infamous Zero planes would be cobbled together from an outright purchase of retired American AT-6’s; repainted and re-outfitted to mimick their aggressors.
The elder Zanuck had the utmost respect for Williams; Zanuck already having purchased the rights to Gordon W. Prange’s novel, Tora! Tora! Tora! (a best seller in Japan, although as yet unpublished in America), and, Ladislas Farago’s The Broken Seal: Operation Magic and the Road to Pearl Harbor. As his book research (conducted under the auspices of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in the years immediately following the attack) proved an intricate moment by moment/blow by blow account (not only of the Japanese itinerary leading up to the disaster, but also the cultural mindset around the world, with particular attention paid to Washington D.C., Rome and London), Prange was hired as the film’s script consultant and encouraged by Williams to go through the screenplay with a keen eye for removing all its pretense and historical inaccuracies. As Williams had done on The Longest Day, his concept for Tora! Tora! Tora! was to split the directorial duties right down the middle; hiring a Japanese director to compliment Richard Fleischer’s American shoot.
In turning to noted film-maker, Akira Kurosawa, Williams thought he was getting the best. Indeed, Kurosawa’s unimpeachable reputation in his native land far and away placed him atop a creative pedestal as a god. Alas, Kurosawa saw Tora! Tora! Tora! as an opportunity to fatten his own wallet. Apart from his considerable salary, the director decided he would cast his portion of the movie – not with actors – but from a roster of Japan’s most esteemed businessmen and industrialists in an attempt to broker favor, such flattery would result in future financing for his own homegrown projects. Richard Zanuck was not impressed and neither was Elmo Williams whose mounting apprehensions about the Japanese shoot already spiraling out of control, were vetoed by Kurosawa, who assured him he could get the necessary ‘performances’ from his hired help.
Alas, unlike the American unit, that had hit the ground running under Richard Fleischer’s command, Kurosawa seemed inexplicably mired in a stalemate. After almost four weeks of shooting, Kurosawa’s efforts yielded just barely six minutes of rough footage, none usable in the final cut. Worse, the Japanese unit had bowed under Kurosawa’s increasingly erratic behavior. Told by Williams he would be relieved of his duties, Kurosawa threatened to commit suicide; then, insisted unseen forces at Fox were conspiring to destroy him – and not just creatively. Kurosawa’s replacements were two of Japan’s rising directorial stars; Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasaku. Playing to each man’s strengths, Williams assigned Masuda, Tora! Tora! Tora!’s dramatic sequences, and, Fukasaku, the formidable action set pieces.
Elmo Williams had hoped to launch into Tora! Tora! Tora! as early as 1967. Alas, time and Fox’s ailing coffers precluded this, the project repeatedly delayed over the next several years while the studio lumbered along to maintain its equilibrium and fiscal composure; enough to look good on paper, at least, to its stockholders. In the meantime, Williams initiated talks with the Japanese high command for their complicity and participation on the picture. Ironically, this decision would bring Williams face to face with Minoru Genda – the architect of Pearl Harbor’s invasion – and now, a successful diplomat. Genda was hardly receptive to the idea. There had been Japanese, Chinese and Korean films made to tell the story behind the bombing. By Genda’s account, none had striven for authenticity. However, Genda was impressed after learning Williams had also produced The Longest Day – one of his favorite war movies. But Williams’ choice of professional colleague would remain unpopular in the U.S. Williams did, in fact, receive numerous death threats as a result. However, unlike Kurosawa, who had become increasingly suspicious to the point of paranoia, hiring two body guards to accompany him everywhere – even to the bathroom – Williams chose to shrug off these anonymous threats which amounted to nothing in the end.
Agreeing to remain faithful to each side’s factual account of Pearl Harbor would prove increasingly problematic for Elmo Williams; particularly after the combined first draft script, cobbled together by Larry Forrester, Hideo Oguni and Ryûzô Kikushima ran an unmanageable 667 pages. Over the next several months, Williams would endeavor to trim out the fat. He also negotiated successfully to shoot key sequences in California, Washington, Japan and on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. On the isle of Kyushu, Japanese crews toiled to build a 660 ft. full scale replica of the Imperial dreadnought battleship, Nagato. Meanwhile, Fleischer’s production team endeavored to create a similarly authentic facsimile of the infamous, Arizona; sunk on Dec. 7 and in whose capsized and flaming hull almost 2/3rd of Pearl Harbor’s casualties were incurred.
Although the movie’s title suggested a stringent focus on the day of the Japanese assault, Tora! Tora! Tora! actually begins almost at the beginning; illustrating at least some of the deciding factors leading to the well-orchestrated attack on Pearl Harbor. Herein, Fleischer sincerely worried his movie might disgruntle American audiences. Indeed, the screenplay played up the complacency of the Armed Forces and the repeated stalemates encountered in Washington as Secretary of War, Henry Stimson (Joseph Cotten) and Secretary of State, Cordell Hull (Joseph McCready) casually debate Japan’s motivations – either for peace or for war – with Ambassador Nomura (Shôgo Shimada); devastatingly used as a pawn by his own government to broker a truce Japan had no intension of honoring, merely as a tactical delay to put the Americans off their game with a false sense of security.
History does bear these scenarios out. Alas, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s desire for peace was quashed when the Emperor of Japan signed his pledge of loyalty to the Axis Powers. But in the days leading up to the attack, the general consensus amongst the military might stationed at Pearl Harbor, and at the aerial base on Ford Island was that no Japanese attack was feasible; the distance too great to stage and survive such a coup. Tensions between the United States and Japan had existed almost from the moment America annexed the Hawaiian Islands in 1899. For decades, this animosity festered. But when Japan turned its military might on the acquisition of neighboring Chinese cities and towns, particularly Manchuria, the U.S. sought to stem their tide of conquest with an embargo on all raw materials imported into the country. This included oil; an essential for Japan – still struggling to rid itself of its primitive agrarian roots. Unable to reach an understanding with the United States, Japan allied itself with the fascist governments of Germany and Italy, who promised support and plush foreign investment.
At least some of this back story makes its way into Tora! Tora! Tora!; distilled into wordy byplay between the various Japanese commanding officers deferring to Genda’s plan of action. What the movie fails, somewhat egregiously, to explain is the means by which the Japanese increasingly became better informed with regards to the U.S. military’s activities in Pearl Harbor. While the U.S. dilemma about bottling up the fleet to its own detriment was summarized in a scene aboard a PBY, utilizing overhead aerial effects of the massive models built for the movie, and between James O. Richardson (Richard Zuckert) and Husband E. Kimmel (Martin Balsam) - both Commanders-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, the reality was that they probably (or rather, likely) discussed similar tactics inside an office or parlor or war counsel room instead of opting for this more dramatic bird’s eye view to illustrate the point more concretely for the audience. But the Japanese were incredibly well informed of the U.S. presence and whereabouts of all its battleships at all times; gaining valuable insight via encoded messages sent to them by spies already living amongst the general populace on the island. In Washington, the U.S. code breakers are depicted factually, as is the increasing alarm of a planned attack on Pearl Harbor as the Christmas holidays advance.
Tora! Tora! Tora! picks up the story in 1941, with a clandestine conversation between newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Sō Yamamura) and his predecessor, Zengo Yoshida (Junya Usami). Both view America's embargo against Japan as the latest straw, set to topple an already very shaky house of cards. While each man agrees a war with the U.S is akin to a suicide pact, Japan’s wily politicos fashion a disastrous alliance with Germany; the trajectory leading to the contemplation of a planned attack on Pearl Harbor, meant to cripple America’s fleet, but more importantly, its isolationist morale. In planning their annihilation, the Japanese took a page from the British playbook; Churchill’s successful assault on the Italian fleet stationed at Taranto, whose bay was similarly shallow to Pearl Harbor, leaving a lasting impression on the Japanese high command. A plan is put into action, to modify all depth-charging torpedoes to a dive of only 35 feet.
Meanwhile, American intelligence in Washington breaks the encrypted Japanese Purple Code, allowing for the interception of secret radio transmissions monitored by U.S. Army Colonel Bratton (E.G. Marshall) and U.S. Navy Lt. Commander Kramer (Wesley Addy). The discoveries made in these communications are mildly alarming. Plans are underway for some sort of attack. But the Japanese are ever cautious about giving away all their details, creating a central unease more so in Washington than in Hawaii. Tension only continues to grow with ominous certainty as time passes. In Japan, Air Staff Officer, Minoru Genda (Tatsuya Mihashi) begins to fashion his blueprint for destiny, handpicking former fellow Naval Academy cadet, Mitsuo Fuchida (Takahiro Tamura) as his squadron leader. Meanwhile, everything appears copacetic in Pearl Harbor. Nevertheless, Admiral Kimmel (Martin Balsam) and Lieutenant General Walter C. Short (Jason Robards) do their utmost to fortify the outpost’s defenses, but only against homegrown espionage and sabotage scenarios. To quash this possibility, Short elects to carefully line up all his aircraft along the sides of the launch tarmac on Ford Island; presumably, better observed from the watch towers. Alas, this too will prove a fateful blunder, as the consolidation leaves the planes vulnerable to an air raid.
Diplomatic tensions escalate, unabated by Ambassador Namuro’s naïve assurances to Cordell Hull his country has no desire to enter into a war with the United States even as Army General Hideki Tojo (Asao Uchida) is openly opposed to forging the necessary peace between their two nations. The Japanese military commence a series of fourteen radio transmissions from Tokyo to their Washington embassy, the last one concluding with a declaration of war made too late to prevent the air strikes on Pearl Harbor. The messages decoded in Washington fall on deaf ears as it is Sunday; also due to Chief of Naval Operations, Harold R. Stark (Edward Andrews) ineffectual decision to delay placing Pearl Harbor on high alert until after he has had the opportunity to convey the contents of these decoded messages to President Roosevelt first.
In a last ditch effort to avoid catastrophe, Colonel Bratton convinces the Army Chief of Staff, General George Marshall (Keith Andes) a threat exists. In response, Marshall places Pearl Harbor on high alert. The USS Ward identifies a Japanese midget sub attempting to slip through their defensive net and enter the harbor. The submarine is sunk at a safe distance by a depth charge, and news of the incident is passed along to Lieutenant Kaminsky (Neville Brand), who takes it very seriously. Nevertheless, Captain John Earle (Richard Anderson) is unimpressed. Pearl Harbor has been on high alert before – always with the best of intensions, each and every time proven to be needless. In the meantime, two privates posted at the remote radar outpost are the first to spot the incoming Japanese planes entering their airspace. Relaying their discovery to Hickam base, Army Air Forces Lieutenant, Kermit Tyler (Jerry Cox), casually dismisses their report as he believes the aircraft spotted are a group of American B-17 bombers conducting aerial maneuvers.
Due to badly bungled communications, a telegram marked as urgent is never relayed to Pearl Harbor in time. The incoming Japanese fighter planes attack with immunity, decimating Ford Island and virtually wiping out all but a handful of planes that manage, amidst the mayhem and crippling display of pyrotechnics, to get into the air. Two American fighter pilots, Lieutenants Ken Taylor and George Welch, desperately race to the smaller airfield at Haleiwa from where they manage to take off and engage the enemy. Meanwhile, the second wave of the Japanese attacks on the naval installations is underway. One armor-piercing projectile strikes the USS Arizona in its forward compartment, setting off its powder magazines; the ship erupting in a hellish ball of flame and killing many instantly while leaving others either to burn to death or drown amidst its capsizing wreckage. In a matter of moments, the U.S. fleet is utterly decimated. News of Pearl Harbor’s demise reaches Cordell Hull in Washington. Unable, as yet to fully comprehend the gravity of the attack, Hull is nevertheless swift to inflict his stern anger on the equally stunned Japanese Ambassador.
Mitsuo Fuchida returns victorious with his squadron to the Japanese aircraft carrier, urging his Fleet Commander, Admiral Chuichi Nagumo (Eijiro Tono) to launch the final offensive and wipe out the U.S. dry docks. Instead, Nagumo deems the initially planned third wave unnecessary, diffusing Fuchida’s elation. It is a bittersweet miscalculation, from which Tora! Tora! Tora!’s director, Richard Fleischer attempts to salvage some prospect of a hopeful and more optimistic finale, meant to satisfy at least his audiences’ thirst for the eternally victorious American spirit. We see Admiral Yamamoto struggling to label the Japanese assault an out-and-out victory, instead suggesting “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”
This moment of clairvoyance comes too little too late in Tora! Tora! Tora!’s lengthy 160 minute exercise to make it a truly moving or effective conclusion to all that has preceded it. In hindsight, the movie’s biggest blunder is it plays its cards too close to the vest of historical accuracy. There is more than a kernel of truth to the movie’s notion the Japanese military employed the best and the brightest of their generation while the United States’ military was largely comprised of a less than stellar brain trust to whom military service was not so much a matter of prestige as one of basic survival. The forces are therefore pitted as such: brains vs. heart. And Fleischer’s movie goes one better in making the Americans a rather complacent lot, seemingly only interested in a good time, bumbling and bored with repeatedly being put on high alert, and, completely ineffectual at a moment’s notice. By contrast, the Japanese depictions are mostly austere and organized; a military machine primed for the element of surprise and orchestrating a perfect coup right under the noses of the enemy without sustaining very many casualties. This is, of course, fairly accurate to the way the situation played itself out on December 7, 1941. But does it make for good theater or grand entertainment? Arguably, no.
Tora! Tora! Tora! is a valiant effort to document the fascinating back story as well as the attack on Pearl Harbor. On this score it immeasurably succeeds. No one can deny the movie its documentarian feel or its’ gripping analysis of the crippling conflict. This is the day of infamy as it likely happened moment by moment. But such strident commitments to fact deprive Tora! Tora! Tora! of its entertainment value. If only Fleischer had cast a star or two. But which parts? Tora! Tora! Tora! is an ensemble piece in which all of the actors are pretty much given equal amounts of screen time. Casting a star would necessitate rewrites so that one part in particular commands the lead; ergo, representing the event through a more personal perspective. It may not hold up under historical scrutiny, but it would have lent Tora! Tora! Tora! badly needed equilibrium in a central figure the audience could invest in and root for: movies, alas, are funny that way! They are meant to be an artistic representation of a world we only think we know; not a factual representation of life itself.
Only a star can deliver on this sort of non-objective sense of time and place to quell or even quash the staggering amounts of realism exerted in this movie. After all, what is Tora! Tora! Tora!’s objective? It isn’t to be a full-blown documentary about the events at Pearl Harbor, as artistic license has been taken along the way to condense and possibly depict certain conversations between characters that may or may not have taken place. Regrettably, it’s not a narrative movie either, not in the classical sense; but perhaps the first attempt at the docu-tainment instead of a docu-drama. Today’s audiences are far more forgiving of this blended nature in these two irreconcilable worlds, though still only on television’s Discovery or History Channels. As a full-fledged feature film, the pitch is a little harder to swallow; the circumstances being depicted as fact acquiring an uncanny newsreel quality, albeit in color, widescreen and stereophonic sound. It’s a tough call and Tora! Tora! Tora! does not straddle this chasm particularly well. There is a certain amount of turgidity to the Japanese sequences. They tend to run on and on in their strategizing. It’s all dealt with rather heavy-handedly. By contrast, the American dialogue sequences have a perfunctory quality: a sort of fact-finding/revealing ennui; as in, ‘here…this is how we did it…now, moving on.’
In the final analysis, Tora! Tora! Tora! was a rather embarrassing misfire for 2oth Century-Fox at a time when the studio sincerely could not afford another. In haste, mostly to shore up his own complicity, Darryl Zanuck, who had effectively taken back the company from Spiros P. Skouris in 1963, now turned his wrath and all his blame on the one man who had initial misgivings about proceeding. As a show of force meant to impress the stockholders, Zanuck fired his son, Richard from the post as Production Chief, causing a cataclysmic rift, not only within the structure of the company but also his own family. Darryl’s wife, Virginia, who had tolerated her husband’s frequent affairs with aspiring starlets, who had even forgiven them all by the time he can home to California an aged and ailing exec’ without a studio to command, effectively sided with her son on this matter. In the end, none of it mattered. For the stockholders, tired of Darryl’s grandstanding, and well aware he was the driving force putting Tora! Tora! Tora! on the big screen, would tolerate the old-time mogul only a short while more before voting him out as Chairman of the Board. It was the end of an era. 2oth Century-Fox was no longer the house of Zanuck.
Time often does strange things to movies. But Tora! Tora! Tora! remains unsettlingly trapped in a very strange vacuum, neither timeless nor timely, but queerly and merely present and accounted for; a relic made under the auspices of a tyrannical picture-making giant who had, arguably, passed his prime. Fox was long overdue for an overhaul by the time Tora! Tora! Tora! had its debut. Here was a studio unwilling to see the end of the line for all those big and bloated road show spectacles that had dominated the sixties, but spoke only to a specific type of film-maker’s genius. Even after the audience had moved on to other things, Fox continued to make these sorts of glamorous entertainments. Undeniably, they would have played exceptionally well amidst the gigantisms of the mid to late fifties; the only real problem affecting their sound judgment – the passage of time itself. It was 1970! Viewed today, Tora! Tora! Tora! is impressive in some regards, and woefully undernourished in others. The absence of any readily identifiable face to the casual film-going novice leaves a rift as gaping and unable to be shored as the cataclysmic wound inflicted on the USS Arizona; even the discontented stirred by the spectacle in the film’s final half hour, unavoidably bored with the rest of it. 2oth Century-Fox never attempted another film like Tora! Tora! Tora! and for good reason. Despite being meticulously crafted, expertly staged and solidly crafted, it’s generally a snore!
Fox Home Video’s Blu-ray release is impressive on a multitude of levels; beginning with the overall quality of their 1080p main feature. Colors are generally vibrant, fine detail pops and film grain appears naturally realized and indigenous to its source. Contrast is often a tad weak during indoor scenes, though negligible, while scenes shot outside exhibit a startling crispness surely to impress. Better still, director, Richard Fleischer’s heavy usage of miniatures for the epic assault on Pearl Harbor does not reveal itself in any discernable way via this newfound visual clarity. It all looks as it should. Fox has also afforded us the opportunity to watch either the 144 minute U.S. cut or the 160 minute Japanese edit. The additional scenes shed more light on the internal machinations leading up to the assault. Personally, I didn’t glean any ‘added’ value – apart from their historical purpose – to recommend the lengthier cut. Both will suffice. It’s just a matter of how long you can wait and squirm in your seat. The 5.1 DTS audio delivers some impressive bass during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Dialogue, on the whole, exhibits a good solid rendering, clean and without any background hiss.
Extras are another reason to rejoice. There is one full-fledged documentary and two featurettes to wade through. History Through the Lens tells the tale of the making of the movie, hosted by Burt Reynolds and with a copious amount of behind-the-scenes footage and interviews to enrich your viewing experience. There’s also, ‘The Day of Infamy’ – a brief sketch through the timeline of actual events that inspired the movie. Finally, Fox has included an episode from its defunct ‘Hollywood Backstory’ series on the making of the film. We also have a comprehensive audio commentary by director, Fleischer, producer, Elmo Williams and Richard Zanuck. Honestly, I much preferred watching Tora! Tora! Tora! the second time while listening to this fascinating series of reflections on the oddities about the making of this picture. Fox has capped off the extras with a sizable gallery of stills, a theatrical trailer (badly worn) and a vintage junket. Now, brace yourself – all of this is housed on one Blu-ray disc.
I really cannot applaud such an effort, since bit rate is understandably compromised to accommodate all this stuff. Honestly, however, I haven’t been able to detect any undue sacrifices made to the overall visual or aural quality of the feature film. The extras are all represented in standard def and, regrettably, without the necessary chapter stops. Once you start watching History Through the Lens (at two hours, the most comprehensive of the extras) you had better not pause to run to the bathroom or kitchen for a snack or you will be starting over from the beginning. Pity that! Otherwise, and for those who have long admired the movie itself, Tora! Tora! Tora!, the Blu-ray comes highly recommended for what it is; also for the way Fox has managed to put together some impressive and important extras. I sincerely wish the brain trust behind this effort was still pulling the strings at Fox’s Home Video base of operations these days. Pity that too!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)