Retro Review: ‘Tora! Tora! Tora!’ – A History Lesson of a Film

December 7th, 1941, a date which will live in infamy. The date when the Japanese Empire launched a surprise attack against the United States and their fleet in Pearl Harbor, forcing the United States into entering the Second World War. This event is what 1970’s Tora! Tora! Tora! sets out to tell.

Tora! Tora! Tora! was a Japanese-American co-production looking at both sides during the run-up to the attack and the attack itself – broadly focused on Admiral Yamamoto (So Yamamura) and the Imperial Japanese Navy’s preparation, the errors made by the American commanders at Pearl Harbor and Washington, plus the diplomacy between the United States and Japan and America’s intelligence efforts.
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Tora! Tora! Tora! is comparable to 1962’s The Longest Day – both were big international productions that had actors and directors from their respective nations and aimed to be as accurate as possible to real-life events. The movie aims to incorporate as much of the history as possible, having a huge cast that looks at the decisions of senior politicians and military officials to mid-ranking officers – who run specific parts of the operation for the Americans and the Japanese. As a history lesson Tora! Tora! Tora! is amazing with how much it covers and how many characters are in the movie. There are only a few inaccuracies, the main one being a plane crashing hanger which was an amalgamation of three events during the real attack. The movie aims to be as balanced as possible – there were mistakes made on both sides and that it was simply a battle of wits between the sides. The Japanese, particularly Yamamoto, were just following the orders of their government, he wanted to avoid war and is somber during and after the attack. The Americans were debating amongst themselves over what is the best course of action.

Tora! Tora! Tora! is a movie of two halves – the first being the preparations for the attack on both sides, the second being the attack itself. However, this makes Tora! Tora! Tora! very dry as we watch men walking around corridors and sitting in offices as they discuss their own plans and what they expect their enemy to do. It’s fine for history buffs as the men talk about the wider context of why Japan is pushed to go to war with the United States, the British attack on Taranto which shows a torpedo raid in shallow water can work and looking at the various military decisions both sides make – but this hardly makes for compelling cinema. The filmmakers could have cut some of the military figures out and found more interesting ways to explain the necessary information while still being faithful to history. At least, the Japanese half shows the Navy preparing for the attack, making it similar to the classic British war movie The Dambusters. The most exciting part of the American side is when Lt. Commander Kramer (Wesley Addy, distracting looking like soccer coach Alan Pardew) discovers an important communication from the Japanese embassy and races around Washington in the middle of the night trying to give it to one of his superiors.
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The cinematic attack on Pearl Harbor was a tremendous feat. This section was directed by Richard Fleischer who had a varied career, making The Vikings, Doctor Dolittle, The Boston Strangler and Soylent Green – and his talent was best unitized for this section. For fans of war movies, this is the part that makes Tora! Tora! Tora! a marvel as it showcases the destruction of the harbor and use of real planes for the flying sequences and the dropping of tornados. The military action was fast, and it was great at capturing the confusion that the Americans on the ground suffered on that fateful day. It is one of the best aerial sequences in film history. However the back projection for scenes of pilots flying and the windows in Pearl Harbor offices is just dreadful and fake looking – even back in 1970, they were criticized.

Tora! Tora! Tora! is a movie for history buffs, it is detailed to a fault. However Waterloo, The Longest Day and Downfall have shown that a movie can be loyal to history and still be compelling to watch. The Japanese half of Tora! Tora! Tora! is the more interesting part of the movie and the bombing sequence still holds up today. It is a much better telling of the attack on Pearl Harbor than what Michael Bay and Randall Wallace achieved in 2001.

Kieran Freemantle
Kieran Freemantle
I am a film critic/writer based in the UK, writing for Entertainment Fuse, Rock n Reel Reviews, UK Film Review and Meniscus Sunrise. I have worked on film shoots. I support West Ham and Bath Rugby. Follow me on Twitter @FreemantleUK.