[box cover]

Tora! Tora! Tora! : Special Edition

Fox Home Entertainment

Starring Martin Balsam, Jason Robards, and E. G. Marshall

Written by Larry Forrester, Hideo Oguni, and Ryuzo Kikishima
Directed by Richard Fleischer, Toshio Masuda, and Kinji Fukasaku

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Review by D. K. Holm                    

"How could the attack on Pearl Harbor have happened? Why was one nation unprepared while another was geared for war? Why did the plan for the sneak attack split the Japanese high command wide open? Why was Admiral Yamamoto marked for assassination by the Japanese warlords? Why was the President of the United States' office considered a security risk? How did the Japanese rehearse their doomsday attack on Pearl Harbor? Why did they keep the American command in the dark? What part was played by the strange Japanese officer they called Gandhi? How did U.S. intelligence know about the attack before the Japanese ambassador did? What was the fateful blunder made by Admiral Nagumo? How was a mighty Japanese task force able to race 4, 000 miles across the Pacific undetected? What caused the notorious radar error? Why was Washington's last urgent message sent by telegraph?"

— Questions asked during the narration on the
trailer for
Tora! Tora! Tora!

"I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve."

— Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto

*          *          *

Tora! Tora! Tora! was apparently made under the assumption that the public has an endless fascination with planes taking off from aircraft carriers. There is a section in the middle of the film in which Japanese Zeros depart for Pearl Harbor and we see not one, not two, not even five, but no less than 14 of them lift off, silhouetted against the blues and oranges of a ravishingly beautiful dawn, as the faces of Japanese naval officers on a set somewhere else pretend they are watching the planes go by. But these are not sexy Top Gun style shots of fighting units, all hard fuselage and steam glistening in the hot sun. These shots are in keeping with the noble effort of the movie: solemn, dull, plodding.

This is an odd movie by any standard. Released in 1970, Tora! Tora! Tora! was an unusual film because an American film studio joined with a Japanese studio to co-create it. Akira Kurosawa was initially contracted to direct the Japanese portions, but he was fired after a few weeks when he fought with American representatives of the production team (only one small scene represents any of his work). Two commercial directors took over. Meanwhile, the American portions were directed by Richard Fleischer. An old studio hand considered by some to be a vastly underrated director, Fleischer's footage here is indistinguishable from television work. More emphasis was placed on re-creating the Pearl Harbor attack than on concocting a clear screenplay (one stunt, a P-40 crashing into the flight line, was an actual accident incorporated into the film). Made to anticipate the 30th anniversary of the attack, the movie failed to ignite with the public (costing $25 million, it went on to earn only $14 million).

Conducted in solemn tones, and with no central characters for the viewer to attach himself to, Tora! Tora! Tora! methodically plods its way through the events leading up to the surprise attack on the morning of December 7th, 1941 (December 8th to the differently time-zoned Japanese). The Japanese section of the fails to explain just what it was the Japanese were hoping to achieve by the attack. Meanwhile, the American portions are a slow chronicle of mistakes — hints not taken, planes not housed in a safe alignment, messages not delivered in time. There are no real characters, just a succession of historic figures who make their famous appearances. Martin Balsam, one of the screen's great actors, is Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet; Jason Robards (who actually was at Pearl Harbor on the day of the attack) is Lt. General Walter C. Short, Commander-in-Chief, Army Hawaii; and E. G. Marshall is the decoder who figured out that the Japanese were going to attack, but whose message arrived too late (all three are very good).

As a narrative, the film is all out of kilter. What should be brief scenes drag on for literally minutes, and when we need detail, we get bubkes. There's a long, embarrassing, rather inexplicable scene in which a Naval intelligence Lt. Cmdr. named Alvin D. Kramer, attached to the decoding room, is driven around Washington D.C. by his wife at night to deliver some important documents. Kramer is an odd, sour fellow who spends most of his scene crabbing at his dutiful wife. Meanwhile, the Japanese characters are unreadable — they all seem to laugh or frown out of context. Based on the evidence of this film, you get the impression that common facial expressions mean entirely different things to the Japanese.

Tora! Tora! Tora!'s trailer proudly announces that certain mysteries surrounding Pearl Harbor will be solved. The questions the announcer asks turn out often to be teases. For example, Roosevelt's office was considered a security risk because some top secret papers were found in the trash; yet soon enough, and without explanation, the office is back on the list of document recipients. But significantly missing from the film is context and explanation. A rather chilly epic, based on several rooms full of research by official Pearl Harbor historians, it has no time for idle conspiracy mongering. Historians from Charles A. Beard, in President Roosevelt and the Coming of War, 1941, to the more recent, Freedom of Information Act-fueled research of R. B. Stinnett in his book Day of Deceit, have put forward a detectable pattern or policy of provocation on the part of Roosevelt. But then, the film is so clumsy at recounting the known facts, we could hardly expect it to stray into spirited speculation. Instead, it's an unyielding litany of failure, making for very much a downbeat epic, and even the Japanese, who "won" the encounter, don't seem to show much joy. Yamamoto takes the opportunity of their triumph to make his famous statement about the sleeping giant. He really knows how to suck the life out of a party. Perhaps someday someone will make a really fun film about the attack on Peal Harbor (hmm....).

Originally released on DVD in 1999, the updated Tora! Tora! Tora!: Special Edition comes with new extras, including a documentary and an audio commentary track. The solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) has only a few signs of wear, while audio is available in Dolby Digital 4.1, along with Dolby 2.0 Surround. There are two significant supplements. "Day of Infamy" is a 20-minute documentary of talking heads explaining the significance of Pearl Harbor and discounting any "conspiracy theories" related to Roosevelt's behavior or policies prior to the attack. The audio commentary consists of a film-long interview of director Richard Fleischer by Japanese film historian Stewart Galbraith, and Fleischer tells many of the same anecdotes and details he recounted in his memoir, Just Tell Me When to Cry. The commentary isn't particularly scene specific. Also here is the theatrical trailer, as well as THX certification.

— D. K. Holm

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