Critically dismissed and a scant commercial success at the time of its release, Tora! Tora! Tora! marked 20th Century Fox honcho Darryl F. Zanuck’s repeating his efforts to alchemise the debris of history into popular entertainment as he had managed with The Longest Day (1962). Zanuck’s next pet project took a similar approach to his depiction of the events leading up the attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, kick-starting America’s entry into the Second World War, providing a string of mostly authentic, episodic illustrations of the people involved and the issues at stake. Perhaps the film's unenthused response was all but inevitable: in spite of lip-service to the horrors of war, the D-Day film recalled a great triumph in a giddy, mobile fashion, whereas a sober, docudrama-style movie about one of America’s worst military disasters was only ever likely to be a glum experience for a broad audience, unless one tackled it in a manner like Michael Bay and Randall Wallace would thirty-one years later, as a pulp melodrama of martyred suffering and rousing comeback.
The utter disgrace that was Bay’s 2001 blockbuster highlighted the qualities of Tora! Tora! Tora! anew. Some criticisms levelled at the film were fair: the special effects swing from beautiful to tacky, and the acting is sometimes patchy. The film lacks a controlling viewpoint, too, not like Patton, Fox’s more successful and lauded epic released the same year, unless it’s Isoruku Yamamoto (Sō Yamamura), the Japanese admiral who concocts a plan to win a war scarcely before it begins, whilst nursing silent dread of the forces he knows he’s unleashing. I quite like the variety of exacting, detail-specific, broadly focused, almost holistic approach the film takes however, as an exacting analysis of what was for one side a military triumph and the other an enraging sucker punch, largely free of hyperbole and histrionic conveniences, and ending not on a note of imminent triumph but of queasy, ominous import. Tora! Tora! Tora! is the kind of film which, in hindsight, is hard to believe ever got made. It certainly couldn’t be done today except on subjects enacted on a far more limited scale, like Paul Greengrass’ reportorial films, which this film certainly anticipates.
Perhaps the most fabled aspect of Tora! Tora! Tora!’s production for cineastes was the involvement of Akira Kurosawa in preparing the Japanese half of the film’s bifurcated viewpoint, an experience that turned toxic for Kurosawa and almost wrecked his career. Kurosawa was fired and replaced by the experienced journeyman Toshio Masuda to handle dramatic scenes, and future cult auteur Kinji Fukasaku, who had already helmed a Japanese-American co-production, The Green Slime (1968), was hired to bring his expertise to bear for more difficult production elements. The English-language side was handled by Richard Fleischer, whose breadth and ingenuity as a helmsman was rarely appreciated in his lifetime. Fleischer was the rare major Hollywood filmmaker of the period who had handled significant special effects work, on 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), but Tora! Tora! Tora! fits with notable ease into his run of studiously composed, superficially detached studies in true-crime tales, including Compulsion (1960), The Boston Strangler (1968) and 10 Rillington Place (1971), and even has structural elements in common, based around the careful deployment of detail and a sense of mounting unease before an eruptive fight for survival, with his horror film See No Evil (1971).
The film coherently pits two productions and two world-views against each-other. The proud Japanese naval men under Yamamura, left out of the Imperial Army’s brutal conquests but now expected to cover its ass by fending off the increasingly disapproving US, are geared up for victory but find themselves becoming cogs in an unstoppable apocalypse, where the Americans are split between the generally indolent and the confused and ineffectively concerned. Tora! Tora! Tora! was important not least for humanising the Japanese perspective on the event, an aspect that helps make the film as a whole ahead of its time. Which is not to say the film lacks a moral perspective, as it paints Yamamoto and his opposite Admiral Kimmel (Martin Balsam) as tragic figures who each have fine qualities but also exemplify something seriously awry in their respective nations’ outlooks, respectively war-obsessed and naïvely distracted. Fukasaku's fulminating rage at the Imperial era's militarism, borne of experiences when he was a teenager and which would be worked out memorably if metaphorically in Battle Royale (2000), was unavoidably given little scope here. But the film doesn't shy away from identifying Gen. Tojo (Asao Uchida) as Yamamoto’s Army nemesis, who has shunted him into fleet command for hampering his agenda too often in cabinet, and exemplifies chauvinist aggression when he's brusquely relieved that he can’t call back the attack in spite of a diplomatic entreaty from F.D.R. The film finds time for noting the comradely excitement, almost painfully intense, of a pair of Japanese airmen in realising they’ve pulled off their impossible mission, and note off-hand eccentricities like Yamamoto’s subordinate Capt. Kameto Kuroshima (Shunichi Nakamura), nicknamed “Gandhi” for his monkish, old-fashioned habits, pouring over the raid plan with awe for its “fool-proof” precision, a devotee to the Zen of war satisfied to find a holy text.
That plan is concocted by Cmdr. Minoru Genda (Tatsuya Mihashi) and put into action by dashing Lt. Cmdr. Mitsuo Fuchida (Takahiro Tamura), whose charismatic leadership is key to pulling off the raid with the discipline required. Tora! Tora! Tora! feels like a product of the late ‘60s-early ‘70s penchant for war films with a thornier attitude towards officialdom, hierarchy, and militarism in general, although Zanuck’s main revisionist intent had been to defend Kimmel and General Short (Jason Robards Jr) in their concern for sabotage, which resulted in considered moves that had the by-product of making their ships and planes sitting ducks for the attack that really came. Tora! Tora! Tora! isn’t so much cynical as interrogative and coolly expository about the failure of governance and military exigencies to properly mesh, counterbalancing the chilling perfection of the Japanese war machine with its selfless human parts with the American mechanism composed of faulty cogs, as bucks get passed, poltroons foul up, and foot soldiers bewildered by flimflam before paying the price, as Pericles’ famous oratory about the difference between the warriors of a democracy and those of a military state is reflected via a perfect contemporary illustration.
The most emotionally direct moments are indeed not found in combat but in interpersonal exchanges of vehement anger and distress stemming from lines of fouled communication. George Macready’s brief but memorable appearance as Cordell Hull confronting the Japanese Ambassador Nomura (Shôgo Shimada), who’s had to front up with a declaration of war too late, sees Hull release a broadside of devastating anger still couched in statesmanlike wording but finally dissolving into a memorably totemic plea and command, “Go!” Lt. Kaminsky (Neville Brand), having failed to get his superior Capt. Earle (Richard Anderson) to react to an early warning, points to the blazing fleet through the office window when Earle comes in: “You wanted confirmation? There’s your goddamn confirmation!”
The film has its share of potential heroes from the official roster: the matinee-idol Fuchida contends, whilst “Bull” Halsey (James Whitmore) slouches in and out of sight with grouchy, hard-assed humour befitting a John Ford character. But Fleischer’s heroes here tend to be little guys trying to be heard amidst the din of international rivalry combusting: worrisome code-breakers Kramer (Wesley Addy) and Bratton (E.G. Marshall) trying to get bigwigs to pay attention as repeated cries of wolf quickly earn disinterest, radar operators confused by strange signals and unsure whether to stick at their posts, a hapless bomber commander (Norman Alden) perturbed to find himself flying into a war “unarmed and out of gas,” a green young destroyer commander (Jerry Fogel) who finds himself having to destroy a midget submarine, and the two out-of-luck USAAF fighter pilots (Rick Cooper and Carl Reindel) who think they’ve been transferred to a remote landing strip because they win at poker too often, and find they’re the only ones who can get into the air and fight back.
The film’s middle third is a comedy of errors played straight, except for a finite note of anxious humour found in the unlikely minutiae that compose momentous events, as Kramer has to get his wife (Leora Dana) to drive him all around nocturnal Washington trying to get someone to take his alert seriously, and the precision of the Japanese plan is foiled in one of its most simple yet vital aspects, as Nomura’s embassy aide can’t type out the coded declaration of war fast enough for it to be delivered in time, even after he strips off his jacket and really gets down to work. The most awkward elements are familiar in this kind of filmmaking, with sketchy segues to characters handing out exposition by way of waving at charts or surveying model fleets, and awkward performing from some of the cast, even the normally unflappable Robards, when having to make an impression and a plot point in swiftly telegraphed scenes.
But the natural intensity of the event gives the film shape and a remorseless, escalating tension that the film relieves with some well-judged if slightly goofy humour, including a flight instructor alarmed to find herself in the midst of a flight of Zeros, and the USS Nevada’s band leader trying to crank out the national anthem before all hell breaks loose. The attack, when it finally arrives, is still a major piece of cinematic spectacle, although some of the Oscar-winning special effects overseen by Fox’s veteran experts L.B. Abbott and Art Cruickshank, looked flimsy even at the time: realistic earthbound effects on the level of what Stanley Kubrick’s team had managed for space in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) were still in the future, and the film is rife with some annoyingly obvious back-projection and model work. But the blend of maximalist detail including huge mock-ups of battleships and aircraft to be destroyed and model work coalesces into a furious and compulsively watchable inferno where the snatched visions of individual heroism, like Dorie Miller’s (Elven Havard), are glimpsed not for titanic bombast but as noble, gutsy, but essentially futile gestures in the midst of an omnipresent massacre.
The editing that stitches this colossal sequence together is as impressive as the staging, a whirlwind of images of destruction and struggle amidst seething flames and gushing waters, machines ripping themselves apart and juddering under explosive blows. One famously close call for a couple of stuntmen, as a mock-up P-40 exploded, careened through a row of similar mock-ups, and crashed against a fuel tanker bare feet from a stumbled stuntman, is recorded here in breathtaking posterity, and the intended stunt work, including a one-wheeled B-26 landing, is all the more impressive from the perspective of today when CGI is used to take the risk out of opening a can of soft drink. On the other hand, some shots see actors shaking about on flimsy sets with cardboard debris falling on them like a ‘50s B-movie. If Tora! Tora! Tora! occasionally suffers from some busting stitches at the seams, that was perhaps inevitable for a movie made on such a scale at a time when Hollywood was undergoing a prolonged and painful generation change. What’s rare about the film’s cumulative achievement in spite of that is not only that it dramatically and accurately portrays a fraught pivot in human history, but in the way it animates a feeling of genuine disquiet by its closing frames, a refusal to offer closure or false uplift, but rather leaving the film like a gaping wound in a manner that strongly resembles Fleischer’s similarly implacable endings in Ten Rillington Place, Soylent Green (1973), and Mandingo (1975).
Perhaps the film’s most powerful motif is one of beholding dreadful spectacle, anticipating Steven Spielberg’s obsession with that grace-note, as Kimmel does first from the crisply cut lawn outside his residence, then again later as the Arizona explodes and a spent bullet smacks through the window, injuring his stomach, but leaving him to lament that it didn’t kill him. Kaminsky’s abuse of Earle and the beggared survey of Halsey and his crew as they sail into the maelstrom of smoke and fire similarly invoke witnessing as a dread but important event in the face of such horror, the spirit indeed that animates the film: to look, to know, and to understand in doing so. The bleak impression of the conclusion is partly thanks to Jerry Goldsmith’s scoring, with the last images of Yamamoto standing upon the deck of his flagship, an ant-like human in command of, and also now at the mercy of, a colossal war machine, his probably apocryphal “awakened a sleeping giant” quote hanging menacingly in the air as a useful piece of foresight nonetheless as the end credits roll over the blazing ships of the line. The filmmakers make it clear that what’s coming, from Midway to the Atom Bomb, will be a calamity, and any time this Pandora’s box is opened is a grim one for humanity in general.