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USA 1970
Directed by
Richard Fleischer, Kinji Fukasaku, Toshio Masuda
144 minutes
Rated G

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

Tora! Tora! Tora!

Synopsis: The true story of the December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour

Released in 1970, Tora! Tora! Tora!, is an exceptional-for-the-period World War II film that still stands up well. Exceptional not only because it presents both sides of the story, but also because it sticks to the facts with painstaking historical fidelity. It stands up well today partly because of that fidelity and the well-crafted pacing of the narrative and partly because the attack itself is played out with a comparable sense of fidelity, something which eminently demonstrates the pit-falls of today’s lavish but often less-than-convincing computer-generated effects.

It is no accident that the film opens from the Japanese perspective with the dialogue in English-subtitled Japanese as this unconventional strategy immediately takes us out of our sense of the familiar. It is only when we have been introduced to the Japanese side of things that the film switches to the American story. Indeed so committed were the makers to producing an even-handed account that the Japanese sections of the film were written, directed and photographed by a Japanese team, the two parts of the film essentially being produced separately and edited together. This gives a sense of authenticity to the portrayal of events that is quite outstanding for its time (two decades later Kevin Costner’s 1990 Dances With Wolves was lauded for doing something similar).

The screenplay which based on the books Tora! Tora! Tora! by Gordon W. Prange and The Broken Seal by Ladislas Farago, meticulously and methodically introduces us to all the main players on both sides of the conflict, using superimposed titles to identify them and their official positions as it reveals the chain of events. Here a good many familiar faces of  50s and 60s Hollywood, including E.G. Marshall,  Martin Balsam, Joseph Cotton, and Jason Robards fulfil the roles although none are called upon to do more than that. Tora! Tora! Tora! is a drama of events, not people.

As the film opens relations between the Japanese and Americans are strained. Japan is flirting with Germany, America is as yet neutral. The Japanese Army hawks are keen to ramp up the conflict but the Navy and various members of the Japanese government are less keen. Then the bold idea of a surprise attack on the American Fleet at Pearl Harbour is mooted and although a huge gamble, the hawks have their way and the decision is taken to proceed.

What follows is a story of American complacency and bureaucratic bungling and Japanese good fortune as the latter manage to enter Pearl Harbour completely undetected and wreak havoc. If the almost procedural attention to the unfolding events as the Japanese plot and strategize their coup and the Americans manage to miss every opportunity to stop the, requires close attention, the latter part of the film, which is given over to the attack itself, is a spectacularly staged event and no doubt this is where most of the film’s enormous $US25million budget went.

It is not surprising that the film did well in Japan but was not well received in the U.S. as, once again remarkably, it is unyielding in exposing the incompetence of the American brass and White House politicians who, despite having all the information they needed to do so, failed to avert the attack. 

Perhaps even more remarkably, the Japanese are as well-articulated as their American counterparts and they are shown not only to be brave and disciplined soldiers but also living, breathing individuals with their own motivations and points of view.

As the film opens, so it closes, with Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Soh Yamamura), the chief commander of the Japanese fleet, getting the final ominous words (rather gratuitously repeated on the screen): "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve."  

FYI: Tora! Tora! Tora! had the misfortune to be released the same year as another WWII film, Patton, which stormed the Oscars in 1970 but it did pick up the Oscar for special effects.




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