Friday, June 5, 2009

Reeling Backward: "Destination Tokyo"

There was a moment watching "Destination Tokyo" that was so cheesy, so unbelievably lame that I actually burst out laughing.

This movie came out in 1943, as the campaign against the Japanese in the Pacific was still very much a tenuous affair, and it's hard to see it today as anything other than a blatant piece of wartime propaganda.

The direction by first-timer Delmer Daves is quite ham-handed in my opinion, but he was no hack. He went on to helm many well-regarded classics, including "Dark Passage" and "3:10 to Yuma."

Daves also did the screenplay, which seems to have been dictated by the war department. The Americans are a colorful diaspora of swell guys who smile, share photos of their girls and gently tease one another in a good-natured way. There's a rakish ladies' man, a crotchety old cook, a doe-eyed kid getting his first taste of war, an atheist who finds a little faith, and so on. Stock characters, one-two-three.

The Japanese, or "Japs" as they're generally called in the movie, are faceless and impersonal. Cary Grant, as the absolutely perfect captain, has a monologue where he talks about how screwed up Japanese culture is because it's so militaristic and lacking in freedom, like the U.S. enjoys. Although as films like this make clear, during WWII we all enjoyed the freedom to think exactly the same way.

On an aside, I'm not one of those people who considers "Japs" a derogatory term. It is, after all, merely a shortening of the proper term of Japanese. Do people consider "Yanks" an insulting term for American soldiers, short for "Yankees"? Plus it's a long-standing tradition of American soldiers to give their enemies nicknames -- Germans were "Jerrys" or "Krauts," Soviets were "Commies" or "Rooskies." The most common term for our soldiers currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan is to call the general populace "hajjis," which ironically is an honorific in Muslim culture. So I don't get too worked about this sort of terminology being thrown around in war movies, since it reflects how the grunts actually talk. Although I do hold the line against blatantly racial terms, such as calling the Vietnamese "gooks."

The set-up is that Grant's sub, the Copperfin, is supposed to sneak into Tokyo Bay and put some spies ashore to gather intel for an impending bombing run. There are, of course, some battle scenes toward the end, because you can't have a submarine movie without torpedoes slamming into an enemy ship or three, plus the ubiquitous depth-charge sequence of men holding onto the bulkheads as the entire ship shakes with the pounding explosions.

The special effects are not very special, even by 1943 standards. There's a ton of grainy stock footage cut into the movie, and it stands out like a sore thumb from the rest of the production, which appears to have been shot entirely in a studio. They lifted some submarine footage from other movies, and most of the rest is done with models that look cheap and flimsy. There's one bit showing Japanese planes taking off from a carrier, and I swear it was done with children's toys.

That's not the part that got me laughing, though. The unintentionally hilarious bit comes when they first surface in the enemy bay, and Grant looks through the periscope and sees Mount Fujiyama looming on the horizon, and there's this big, sudden musical cue. It's like, "DA-DUUUUHHHH!!!" Corny enough, but then he tells his executive officer to take a look, and he grabs the periscope, and we get the exact same mountain shot again with the exact same wallop of music. "DA-DUUUUUHHHH!!!" Hilarious.

Generally I don't review classic movies that I genuinely didn't like, since I see my role as better suited to recommending old flicks people may not have seen, but I thought there were a few interesting things to say about "Destination Tokyo." It's bad enough that it could make for an entertaining rental with your friends, doing the Mystery Science Theater 3000 thing. Enjoy!

1.5 stars out of four

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