Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) *****

Thankfully devoid of the empty triumphalism that marred In Harm’s Way (1965) and Pearl Harbor (2001) and the gritty backs against the wall heroism and snatching some kind of victory from the jaws of defeat of The Alamo (1960) and Zulu (1964), and with a documentary-style approach much more acceptable these days than then, there is an immense amount to appreciate and absorb in this last-gasp 70mm roadshow from a financially flailing Twentieth Century Fox.

Shorn, too, of the traditional all-star cast bar Jason Robards (Hour of the Gun, 1967) – who might not count – nor the regiment of rising talent stuffed into such epics in the hope one might catch the eye and float to the top. And there’s no room to ram in a distracting romance such as in the previous and future films focusing on the military disaster. Instead, stuffed with dependable supporting players like Martin Balsam (Harlow, 1965), E.G. Marshall (The Chase, 1966) and James Whitmore (The Split, 1968) stops audience rubber-necking in its tracks, unlike producer Darryl F. Zanuck’s previous The Longest Day (1962), in favor of forensic analysis of what went wrong in the defence and what went so brilliant right in the attack.

Like most of the best war epics – The Longest Day, Battle of the Bulge (1965), taking an even-handed approach in presenting both sides of the battle, except here you could argue considerably more time is spent with the Japanese, beginning with the opening credits where the camera floats in and around a giant battleship.  Despite the sudden attack which went against all the traditions of war – a timing error apparently – the Japanese are presented as honorable and even arguing against going to war as well as worrying about the consequences of poking the tiger.

And there is none of the endless owing and scraping and not attempting to rise above your station in the traditional Western-view of the Japanese. Here, from the outset, superior officers are questioned possibly in manner that would be permitted among the opposing forces.

The first half is given up to the superb organisation of the attack, including the bold use of using aerial torpedoes – proven to work by the British in an earlier assault on a harbor without the apparent depth of water required – and contrasting it with the general U.S. ineptness, bureaucracy, interdepartmental battles and overall lack of preparation even though several personnel believed an attack imminent. The Yanks had even broken the Japanese codes so could easily have taken heed of obvious omens, had working radar on site though its employment was handicapped by being limited to three hours a day and initially lacking a means of communicating findings. Someone had even worked out that the Japanese would need six aircraft carriers to mount an attack and that the ideal time would be early morning on a weekend, someone even predicting an attack down to the exact time except a week out.

Of course, the U.S. at this point was not at war and so could be excused switching off in the evening or being uncontactable in the morning because they were still out carousing from the night before or sedately riding a horse. While there is a growing sense of alarm, the chain of command is woefully stretched often in the wrong direction and at one point stops before it reaches the President.

Fearful of sabotage, the Americans shift planes away from the perimeter of airfields smack bang into the runway where they can be more easily destroyed. Perhaps the greatest irony is that in shifting the U.S. fleet from its home base in San Diego, the Americans made such an attack possible.

When it gets under way, the battle scenes are superb, especially given none of the CGI Pearl Harbor could call upon, and yet with the U.S. aircraft carriers by luck still at sea failed to deliver a killer blow for the Japanese.

It’s handled superbly by director Richard Fleischer (The Boston Strangler, 1968), Kinju Fukasaku (Battle Royale, 2000) and Toshio Masuda (The Zero Fighter, 1962).  The American flaws are dramatized rather than being dealt with by info-dump. Larry Forester (Fathom, 1967) and long-time Akira Kurosawa confederates Hideo Oguni (Ikiru, 1952) and Ryuzo Kikushima (Yojimbo, 1961) fashioned a sharp screenplay from mountains of material.

Long rumored to be a box office flop it turned out to have made a decent profit, albeit not in the U.S.

The documentary approach adds immensely to the movie and it remains one of the all-time greats precisely because of the lack of artificial drama.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

8 thoughts on “Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) *****”

  1. Very much an underrated, solidly made and highly watchable film. Even as a kid, I felt the movie was unduly criticized for taking a documentary-like approach and eschewing personal stories (though a good film could have been made that way once but not anymore). I’ve always considered this something of a companion film to “Patton” that was released the same year but was far more successful for taking a more dynamic approach (plus all that George C. Scott wattage). Also worth noting that Jerry Goldsmith scored both films and while his rousing “Patton” soundtrack was crucial to that film’s success he took an equally effective if restrained and more somber approach here.

    I’ve also always suspected that part of the reason this film didn’t do better stateside was that Americans were suffering from collective Vietnam fatigue and didn’t have the stomach to confront another collosal war failure at the cinema not to mention a good chunk of the potential audience would have been middle-aged men who’d fought in the war and probably didn’t want to relive this particular fiasco . It’s such a pity because Fleischer is a very good journeyman director (the likes of which have disappeared in a sea of self-professed autears) and the film marked a truly great Hollywood studio marshalling its vast creative forces (including perhaps the best miniature and special effects crew in the states) for one last grand spectacle.

    I grew up on World War II movies and I have always preferred the more even-handed, almost procedural films like this, “The Longest Day “”The Battle of the River Plate” and “Sink the Bismark” to the more typically gung-ho Hollywood fare. It’s a dark, rainy day here in my corner of Michigan. I think I’ll pull out my copy of the DVD and give the movie another watch.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Apologies for the delay in my response. You make some excellent points. I was always surprised how in the 1960s Hollywood took such an even-handed view of the conflict. You can add Battle of the Bulge to that list. I always wondered if Zanuck was gambling on overseas customers saving the day and expected the movie to do less well at home. It would have been interesting if directors of ‘Nam movies had taken such an even-handed approach. I forgot to point out how effective Goldsmith’s score was for Tora! especially as he won high praise for Patton. I am a big fan of Fleischer and sometimes I prefer a journeyman to an auteur since they don’t go back to the same subject so often. There’s an argument to be made that academia has spoiled enjoyment of old movies by determining which movies should be re-viewed and which ignored.


      1. I have to admit I also lean more toward the journeymen directors than the auteurs, give me a Michael Curtiz picture any day (not too mention most of the more notorious auteurs have been shown to have relied upon a lot of input from the talent they hired). I also agree very much that academia unjustly gave many of these directors and their films the short shrift.

        As for Hollywood’s even-handed take on WW II in the sixties I suspect it may have been a reflection of the experiences of many of the actual veterans who made up a huge chunk of mainstream America at the time. I remember most of the fathers and grandfathers in my neighborhood who were veterans tended to express more animosity toward the U.S. military and its incompetence than they did the Germans or Japanese. I heard more than a few appalling friendly fire stories growing up. I also recall most of my working class relatives-including my grandparents -being against the Vietnam War and would bet that Hollywood was actually behind the curve on public sentiment in regards to depicting the conflict at the time.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s an interesting light you shed on 1960s war pictures. Incompetence was a recurrent theme of any military and I guess many conscripted soldiers were able to sympathise with their opposite numbers who didn’t want to fight either. Certainly opposition to Vietnam was widespread. The 1940s and 1950s represented a gung-ho approach to war so it was interesting that it all changed in the following decade.


      3. It’s worth noting that by the late fifties/early sixties there were two very popular American television comedies, “The Phil Silvers Show” and “McHale’s Navy,” that portrayed soldiers and sailors taking advantage of the military burocrecy to make a fast buck on the side while continually pulling the wool over the eyes of their pompous, incompetent superiors.
        There was also an extremely popular comic book, “Sgt. Rock,” about an American army squadron that by the late sixties had switched gears from gung-ho war stories to decidedly war-is-hell anti-war tales. Every issue ended with a logo in the corner of the final panel that read “Make war no more.” Equally remarkable was an immensely successful WW II era soldier doll called G.I. Joe that was transformed from a soldier into a modern “adventurer” by the early seventies due solely to the pressure of parent’s groups. The same groups also effectively banned the sale of toy guns from many popular retailers. It was a fascinating era to grow up in.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Fascinating trove of information. I remember Sgt Bilko. If I remember correctly Good Soldier Schweik was in the same vein. From Here to Eternity also took a satirical approach to the inefficiency of Burt Lancaster’s superiors. Yes, it wasn’t all gung-ho when you touched on bureaucracy.


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