' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

Friday, May 23, 2014

Friday's Old Fashioned: Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

Mervyn LeRoy's frank film takes its title from the infamous Doolittle Raid, captained by Lt. Col. Jimmy T., when sixteen American B-25 Bombers took off from the USS Hornet deep in the heart of the west Pacific to carry out the first retaliatory attack on Japan for Pearl Harbor some four months earlier. The individual bombings, as the title helpfully implies, did not last much more than thirty ticks of the clock, yet the film itself runs for nearly two hours and twenty minutes. This is because it documents how the super-secret raid was constructed, sure, and because it documents how the symbolically successful raid took so long to reach its conclusion, yes, but primarily it's because "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" ultimately chooses to quietly be about so much more than just what went into those specific thirty seconds. 16.1 million Americans served in WWII and while WWII, as its name betrays, had a global impact, its true and incalculable residual effect boils down to each individual man.


The cinematic Doolittle is played by Spencer Tracy purposely at a remove - respectful of his men but also necessarily secretive, parsing out information regarding what they are doing and where they are going bit by bit. And so even though the film opens with him calling to order the attack that will pit his country squarely against the evil Axis, it is not his story but the story of the men he gathers. We meet most of them, including Lt. Bob Gray, who is played by Robert Mitchum which seems to suggest the possibility of a whole other kind of WWII movie, one in which he laconically considers war’s existentialism over a cigarette from the deck of an aircraft carrier as if it were the last chance saloon in Acapulco while Jane Greer broods on the homefront before cracking up and going insane. John Wayne gives a John Wayne-ish speech and Mitchum grins. Wayne: “What’s so funny, pilot?” Mitchum: “Oh, nothing. Just waiting for the punchline. Or was that whole speech it?” Mitchum and Wayne are then made to brawl in the mess hall to prove that man’s real war is with himself. Except I’ve gone and gotten myself distracted in the middle of this “review.” Apologies. We continue.

We meet Lt. Ted Lawson (Van Johnson) and his crew. He is an amiable fellow with a loving wife (Phyllis Thaxter) who has just become pregnant. Of course, now America has declared war and he has been re-assigned. This might sound like prototypical War Movie Bluster, and it sort of is, but, while being based on a true story, it is also setting the groundwork for what will follow.

The thirty seconds in the sky above Tokyo when the bombs are dropped and explosions ripple the sky are unquestionably the production centerpiece. Deftly mixing old newsreel footage with re-creations on the studio lot, the bombing raid is no herky-jerky assemblage of quick cuts nor a rousing montage. It is almost documentarian in spirit, following Lawson’s B-25, The Ruptured Duck, off the runway and over the ocean and across Japan and above Tokyo and back out toward the water and on to China. But more crucially, it also when the film breaks radio contact with mostly every other major character already introduced.


Lawson and his crew, short on gas, as all the planes were that fateful day, are forced to ditch their aircraft and bail out just short of mainland China. With enemy Japanese patrols on the prowl, the Americans, injured badly, are found by Chinese and taken to shelter where their wounds are treated. It is in this elongated wind down from the Doolittle Raid where “Thirty Seconds From Tokyo” reveals itself, blotting out the more rah rah sis boom bah first half by reminding that even a war of altruistic intent can yield heavy burden.

The back half of “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo”, wherein the Chinese villagers aid in Lawson's recuperation, in fact, leaves any sort of war mongering back on the carrier from whence the raiders launched. Here, in its still sorta syrupy mid-40’s way, it becomes all about survival, and if survival has to involve an amputation, so be it. This is not to suggest that “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” suddenly morphs into an anti-military screed. Far from it. After all, Lawson faces each grim development with a general good cheer, free from any Ron Kovic fury. But it reminds us what a battle can cause and at the center of each battle and in the midst of every war there are people, and amongst all those millions of people there are specific persons, and each one of those people has a story. Wars are fought in the name of nations. Wars are fought by individuals.

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