05 December 2009

Remember Pearl Harbor! By Watching Tora! Tora! Tora! Where the History Channel Meets Hollywood

Monday is the 68th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (I know, time flies, don't it?) that led to U.S. entry into World War II. If you're at all predisposed to recognizing historical events by watching movies (who isn't?) then you can do no better than watching Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970).

It's a film that borders on historic re-enactment. It has all the glamor and sex appeal of trip to the hardware store. This is no From Here to Eternity (1953), an exemplary film but one that uses December 7, 1941 as a late backdrop and doesn't pretend to be recounting history. And this is certainly no Pearl Harbor (2001) which uses that same day to tell a silly, sensationalized and totally hokey love story.

From Here to Eternity boasted a cast that included Burt Lancaster, Montgomery Clift, Deborah Kerr and Donna Reed. Pure class. Pearl Harbor, meanwhile, had the likes of Kate Beckinsale, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Alec Baldwin. But Tora times three is all steak and no sizzle. You got your E.G.Marshall (I'll pause while the ladies swoon), Martin Balsam and James Whitmore. A veritable Mount Rushmore of Hollywood hunks they're not, but all do an admirable job in their respective roles. Oh yes, Joseph Cotton does appear but he was eligible for senior citizen discounts by this time.

Point being that Tora tripled is not your typical Hollywood blockbuster. It was meant to be, and quite successfully was, a detailed account of the events leading up to the attack on the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor and the attack itself. There's a lot of old guys sitting around reading documents and barking orders. Half the movie is dedicated to the Japanese side of the story and thankfully these portions were a Japanese production with Japanese actors and a Japanese director. This, of course, adds to the film's historical gravitas. So yes, you also get old Japanese guys doing things like studying maps, arguing with each other and barking orders. There's not the slightest whiff of a love scene in the film's two and quarter hour running time. Hell, there's barely any women in it all.

Doesn't sound like I'm trying to sell you on the film, does it? But I really like Tora to the third power. My appreciation stems only partly from the fact that I'm a border line history of World War II geek. For all its lack of glitz, this is an interesting movie that never drags. Posthumous hats off to directors Richard Fleischer and Kinji Fukasaku, as well as the screenwriters led by Larry Forrestor.

The exciting as vanilla ice cream cast also deserves kudos. Not a one of em takes a bite of the scenery. Besides the chaps I've already mentioned the cast includes a who's who of perennial co-stars and guys many of us remember from innumerable appearances on Sixties and Seventies TV shows. The producers were clearly less interested in star power than getting pros who could hit their marks, deliver their lines without any schmaltz and get out of the way.

The Tora triad has several things going for it. One is that we all watch out with varying degrees of knowledge and understanding about the general events depicted. We are thus getting some blanks filled in and seeing re-creations of events well known. We also see where mistakes were made (on both sides) and just how decisions are made or not made by the military in two very different countries. The other big up is that the attack itself, in addition to being faithful to history, is spectacular to look at. This in the time before computers were doing the work of artists. In the Pearl Harbor of hack director Michael Bey, the attack on Pearl Harbor looks like another spectacular video game. In Tora it looks like footage of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Take your pick.

If you check IMDb you'll see what seems like quite a bit of boo boos noted in the goofs section, but for a story of this sweep with so much detail, the crew did a remarkably good job. Cars, weapons, typewriters and clothing all look appropriate to 1941 (and in most cases are). What we see of Washington D.C. Tokyo and Hawaii are faithfully recreated. The producers were also sticklers for not inventing or making composits of characters not creating any more dialogue than absolutely necessary. It's what you'd get if the History Channel met Hollywood, they got married and had a baby.

Tora three times repeated did not do well at the box office on this side of the Pacific (people flocked to in Japan). This was at a time when the Vietnam War was tearing the U.S. asunder and what seemed like conventional military story was not what people were interested in seeing. The film has rightly gained in stature in the intervening years.

Regardless of how much you know about the Day that Will Live in Infamy, Tora! Tora! Tora! will increase your understanding of an important slice of history. Sounds like a nice way to spend your December 7, 2009.

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