The idea behind “Tora! Tora! Tora!” (1970) was for 20th Century Fox to create a companion piece to “The Longest Day” (1962) that would also reproduce that big-budget, all-star, WWII extravaganza’s success — a success that had pretty much saved the studio from bankruptcy. And, in a way, this made sense. Still reeling from the 1963 box office catastrophe “Cleopatra,” and dealing with a number of high-profile flops such as “Hello Dolly” (1969), “Star” (1968), and “Doctor Dolittle” (1967), Fox was again in financial trouble. As a result, the legendary Darryl F. Zanuck, the Chairman of the Board who had overseen production of “The Longest Day,” and his son Richard, the studio’s president, felt that the 1941 sneak attack on Pearl Harbor would be the ticket out of all their problems.
Unfortunately, the complete opposite proved true. The film went over-budget, costing a then-astronomical $25 million, earned critical raspberries and flopped. The fallout would contribute to one of the most incredible events in the history of Hollywood, when the elder Zanuck fired his own son. In the end, when compared to the film, the actual attack on Pearl Harbor was much cheaper to produce, took less time to plan, and was, at least in the short-term, a success.
“Tora! Tora! Tora!,” however, would outlive its detractors and find a new audience on television and eventual profitability from home video, as well as some overdue critical respect. The Blu-ray transfer (released yesterday to commemorate today’s 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor) delivers this near-classic full justice with a gorgeous widescreen transfer and a ton of extras that delve deeper into the backstories I touched on above.
Using a similar approach to the “Longest Day,” where American, British, and German directors filmed the scenes involving their respective countries, the American scenes for “Tora!” were directed by journeyman Richard Fleischer (“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”) and, after the notoriously difficult Akira Kurosawa had a narcissistic meltdown, Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda were last-minute hires brought in to direct the Japanese action and actors. The result is a splendid docu-drama — a tense, engrossing tick-tock approach that tells the story of the meticulous planning, diplomacy, and stupidity that resulted in a crippling blow to our Pacific fleet and the deaths of 2,042 Americans.
Unlike “The Longest Day,” though, the budget just wasn’t there to hire movie stars, and while this forced choice probably hurt the box office, it does make for a better film. Martin Balsam, Joseph Cotten, E.G. Marshall, James Whitmore, and Jason Robards (who was in the Navy and survived the real attack) are all superb, as are the Japanese actors, and a murderer’s row of exceptional character actors perfectly suits the tone and seriousness of the narrative.
And it’s the narrative that’s the real star here. The hundred-plus minutes that lead up to a brilliantly staged and filmed attack sequence fascinates with detail, thanks mostly to a perfectly structured script and a fidelity to historical accuracy (truth is always more interesting than fiction). The attack itself is an unforgettable mind-blower and a reminder that CGI will never replace this kind of epic filmmaking.
Reportedly, some felt the film’s lack of box office success was due to the fact that the American people weren’t yet ready to see the Japanese portrayed in a sympathetic way. Further proof of this theory was that the film did do very well in Japan. Maybe. But if that is the case, it was a failure of promotion, not the film itself. This faithful retelling does little to acquit the Japanese. While we are made to understand the political and geographical hands they were dealt, “Tora! Tora! Tora!” shows us a very militaristic Imperial Japan and evens foreshadows the kamikaze attacks to come. The Japanese are certainly given their humanity, but there’s also a robotic quality to the military at large. In other words, this is no “Letters From Iwo Jima,” director Clint Eastwood’s overrated and misguided attempt to portray from the Japanese point of view the brutal battle for that small but crucial island.
Today, the 70th anniversary of a terrible crime committed against our country by a people we would eventually defeat, rebuild, and become allies with, is an appropriate day for 20th Century-Fox to rerelease this outstanding spectacle. 40 years and a lot of lazy CGI later, the filmmaking is even more impressive than it was then, but the film also honors our country simply by telling the truth.
“Tora! Tora! Tora!” is available for purchase today at Amazon.