***½/**** Image A Sound B+ Extras A
starring Martin Balsam, Joseph Cotten, E.G. Marshall, Tatsuya Mihashi
screenplay by Larry Forrester, Ryuzo Kikushima, Hideo Oguni
directed by Richard Fleischer and Kinji Fukasuka & Toshio Masuda
by Walter Chaw A joint project between a Japanese film crew and veteran American director Richard Fleischer (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), Tora! Tora! Tora! had Akira Kurosawa assigned as the lead Japanese director, poised to make his American debut with a mammoth script weighing in at well over four-hundred pages--and that just for the Japanese side of the story. Accustomed to complete autonomy in his projects, Kurosawa bowed out after several weeks following a series of run-ins with Fox executives over not only the unwieldiness of his vision, but also disagreements concerning the shade of white used in the interiors of the Japanese carrier ward rooms! Unfortunately, Kurosawa's initial involvement with the picture resulted in his regular cohort Toshiro Mifune turning down the role of Admiral Yamamoto (a role he would play in Jack Smight's 1976 Midway and in 1968's Yamamoto biopic Rengo kantai shirei chôkan: Yamamoto Isoroku), as the two titans of Japanese cinema had lingering bad feelings over their last collaboration, the underseen Akahige.
After an exhaustive search for Kurosawa's replacement was conducted, the Fox production team, headed by Elmo Williams and Fleischer, settled on Kinji Fukasaku and Toshia Masuda, two mid-level directors from Japan's Toho studios. Kurosawa's finished shots were all scrapped (and presumably lost), and his sequences were reshot from scratch with a new team.
Based primarily upon the memoirs of Gordon Prange, the historian responsible for three books which have long been the definitive source for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (At Dawn We Slept), Tora! Tora! Tora! is a staggering technical and logistical achievement that suffers from its overly ambitious reach but remains possibly the best American film about "the day that will live in infamy." Recalling Darryl Zanuck's pet project of 1962, The Longest Day (Zanuck, as Fox's studio chief, championed Tora! Tora! Tora! as well), the film anecdotally relates the planning before the Japanese assault and, on the other side, the bumbling that resulted in the United States being caught completely unawares. As compelling as these historical factoids are, the behind-the-scenes machinations employed in getting the film to the screen at a 1970-staggering $25-$30 million dollars are nearly as interesting--and therein lies the problem.
Tora! Tora! Tora! fails to engage on a personal level, something that also plagues this summer's abominable Pearl Harbor, although the reasons behind, and degrees of, that failure couldn't be more divergent. While Pearl Harbor offers no historical insight nor the appropriate level of gravitas while obsessing on a badly-written love triangle, Tora! Tora! Tora!, in presenting a sprawling document rife with fascinating tidbits, tends to (again like The Longest Day) dilute the drama with dozens of (undeveloped) primary characters and a lack of a clear focus. Tora! Tora! Tora! acts far more effectively as a companion piece to a reading of Prange's work, just as The Longest Day works best as a companion to Stephen Ambrose's D-Day--a visual shorthand, a mildly disjointed footnote for an exhaustive print document.
Beginning with Japan's signing of the Tripartate pact and ending with a virtuoso recreation of the attack itself, Tora! Tora! Tora! does its best to encapsulate every seemingly ironic blunder and strategic posture along the way. A film twice the length of the already lengthy Tora! Tora! Tora! (144 minutes) would, I suspect, still be insufficient to provide the breadth of detail in Prange's work. The problem is not a dedication to historical accuracy (which is very welcome), but to a surplus of historical trivia. Tora! Tora! Tora! would have benefited from a better understanding of the individuals involved in one of the most infamous moments in modern military history. I understand, even as I write this, that a comfortable balance between the disciplines of history and English is a rare one to strike: drawing charges of dryness from one quarter, and of inaccuracy from the other.
Hollywood vets like Martin Balsam, Jason Robards, E.G. Marshall, and Joseph Cotten seem uncomfortable with lines, many stilted, taken from history, and a cast of Japanese character actors seem adrift, appearing to take their cue from So Yamamura's somewhat listless performance as Admiral Yamamoto. To call Tora! Tora! Tora! terribly performed misses the point of the production, yet if any one element dates this thirty-one year-old film, it's the highly-uncomfortable and staged acting of its principals, and the plodding expository sequences that, though packed with information, offer little personal insight into the men behind the yarns.
Technically, however, Tora! Tora! Tora! is a triumph. The special effects run the gamut from convincing scale models of the battleships moored at Pearl Harbor to stunt flying that is very simply amazing (and, in one case, fatal to a stunt person). The climactic attack occupies the last hour of the film and involves images that are haunting and extraordinary considering their complete lack of computer enhancement. Note, in particular, a pair of crashes into rows of grounded American planes (one of which resulted in a propeller becoming dislodged and flying in a deadly arc towards a very lucky camera crew), and a stunning kamikaze dive into a hangar. The big budget is evident in the carefully-choreographed scenes of mayhem and, unlike its modern Pearl Harbor counterpart, the impact of the attack and the events leading up to it are clear and lend the pyrotechnics a welcome sense of importance.
Ultimately, Tora! Tora! Tora! defies conventional criticism to a large degree. It functions as an interesting sketch of America's beginning involvement in WWII, and as a surprisingly accurate overview of the main characters and the mistakes made en route to a turning point in not only that war, but also in American military readiness to this day. What it lacks cinematically (good pacing, good acting), it tends to overcome with the strength of its good intentions and its dedication to historical veracity. Something upon which The Longest Day also relies to a degree, but abandons at key points to present entirely fabricated moments of explosive uplift. The result, as cynical as it may seem, is that The Longest Day is a marginally more enjoyable film while structured and executed, for the most part, in an identical manner to Tora! Tora! Tora!. Still, Tora! Tora! Tora! is worth a look for an example of sterling stunt work, of a war film refreshingly lacking in ugly jingoism or weighted reportage, and of how an expensive production doesn't need to sacrifice good taste and integrity on the altar of profit.
This special edition, THX'd DVD of Tora! Tora! Tora!, timed to coincide with the theatrical release of Pearl Harbor, is utterly stunning. The anamorphic widescreen transfer preserving the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1 is impossibly crisp and true, and the thought of enduring an old pan-and-scan version of the film is highly unsavory. The deep blues of the sea, and the flights of gunmetal gray Zeros buzzing by American gunmetal gray battleships is all the more impressive for the lack of bleed from the red suns on the Japanese warships, and from Old Glory tattering on the unrestful wind. I suspect that Tora! Tora! Tora! hasn't looked this good since the first showing of the first print.
In the remastered Dolby 4.1 sound mix, explosions and the roaring engines of the piece receive a deeply resonant treatment. While the dialogue does sound a little flat, owing, no doubt, to the period's limited recording techniques, everything from the waves crashing against the hulls of the Japanese armada to the whirring squeal of twisting metal engulfs and satisfies.
The DVD includes an excellent, albeit too brief, twenty-minute documentary called "Day of Infamy." As presided over by a trio of historians who discuss the film in relation to fact over archival war footage, "Day of Infamy" offers a fantastic counterpoint to Tora! Tora! Tora!, illustrating both the picture's strengths and weaknesses. Even better than the documentary is an audio commentary track by director Fleischer and Japanese film-historian Stuart Galbraith. Galbraith has done his research and offers fascinating insight into the early involvement of Kurosawa with the film while acting as a marvelous master-of-ceremonies for the initially reticent Fleischer. By the half-hour mark in the film, each is contributing exceptional information regarding the goals and difficulties of mounting Tora! Tora! Tora!, the Herculean task of marrying different editing and coverage styles, and the goals of the producers in creating a work of spectacle and significance. The disc is rounded out by a lengthy theatrical trailer. Originally published: June 20, 2001.
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