Monday, May 9, 2011

Reeling Backward: "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo"

I found myself getting really annoyed at "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," because the first half was all about the pilots getting mushy with their girls. To quote the kid from "The Princess Bride," you go to war movie expecting lots of action, and everyone keeps kissing all the time.

Fortunately, the movie redeems itself with a second act that is decidedly dark and dreary, and an extended air combat sequence that's still amazing nearly 70 years later. It incorporated some actual footage from Col. Jimmy Doolittle's bombing raid on Tokyo a few months after Pearl Harbor, so no wonder.

Militarily, the raid was inconsequential. Negligible damage was done to Japan's war-making industry, and all 16 of the B-25 bombers were lost -- crashing when they ran out of fuel, or the crew ditching before reaching this point. A large number of the servicemen who participated in the raid were killed, wounded or captured.

But the fact that American soldiers were able to deliver a sting right to the heart of the Japanese empire, a little more than four months after the devastating attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet had raised doubts in many Americans' minds about their ability to defend themselves, boosted morale by an unmeasurable factor. Doolittle, who at first thought he'd be court-martialed as the brains behind a colossal failure, later admitted the raid was conceived entirely for the sake of appearances. He won the Medal of Honor for his efforts.

Spencer Tracy plays Doolittle, but it's really a pretty minor role. He shows up every once in a while to give the pilots and crews a pep talk and a little strategy, then disappears for a long while. Considering the cast was mostly a bunch of unknowns -- Van Johnson and Robert Mitchum were not yet household names -- many have opined that Tracy took the role merely to help the project gain financial backing.

If so, Tracy was giving a leg up to the career of Johnson, whose work I've enjoyed discovering through the Reeling Backward journey. (See previous columns here, here and  here.) One of the few blond (or reddish-blond) male movie stars, "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" was his first lead role, and I'm guessing the story was constructed to emphasize his romantic appeal.

Of course, reality is not always what Hollywood would like it to seem. Johnson was fairly open about his gay lifestyle for the time, until the studios cracked down and forced him into a charade marriage. He also suffered serious injuries to his face during a 1943 car accident, including a metal plate in his head, and heavy makeup was usually used to conceal the scars on his forehead.

Ironically, his character Ted Lawson and his wife Ellen have a running joke about their shared handsomeness -- "How'd you get so cute?" "I had to be, to get such a good-looking fella" -- and he ends up losing a leg and having his face sliced open. It was unclear to me if the filmmakers simply removed the makeup to reveal Johnson's actual scars, or painted their own.

Ellen was played by Phyllis Thaxter in her first screen role, who is indeed exceptionally cute, especially the way she squints when she smiles. She would go on to have a long career in film and television, playing Ma Kent in her final film role in 1978's "Superman."

Anyway, roughly the first half of the movie -- it's 138 minutes, rather long for that era -- is taken up with the training for the Doolittle raid, about which the pilots and crews are kept completely in the dark. The fact that the main part of their preparation was how to get a mammoth B-25 to take off in 500 feet or less should've been a pretty big hint that they'd be launching from the deck of an aircraft carrier.

As much as I enjoyed Johnson and Thaxter's chemistry, I struggled to get through this section. It's fairly prototypical World War II propaganda-type stuff, with every soldier a good American who doesn't gripe or slack off and gets along with his comrades.

It's the "swell guy" routine -- that's Ted, he's a swell guy! And that tall fella, we call him Shorty, he's from New Orleans, what a swell guy! Hey, have you yet Bob, he was best man at Ted's wedding, he's a little on the glum side, but a swell pilot!

One yearns for a morose outsider, a la William Holden in "Stalag 17."

Bob, by the way, was played by Robert Mitchum in one of his early film roles. "Thirty Seconds" gave a big boost to his rising stardom, and soon like Johnson he was a top leading man. The other major role is Robert Walker as David Thatcher, the gentle-natured mechanic/gunner aboard Lawson's "ship" -- as they referred to their aircraft -- nicknamed "The Ruptured Duck."

Right around the time I was starting to lose patience with the movie, they take off on their bombing raid. It's an astonishing sequence, at least 30 minutes long, with hair-raising shots of the plan flying just a few dozen feet above the ocean, and later the hilly Japanese landscape, to avoid detection.

Director Mervyn LeRoy and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (who adapted Lawson's book) make this sequence absolutely thrilling, despite the fact that the Duck never gets into any dogfight situations with Japanese Zeroes. The raid was such a surprise, it seems, that few anti-aircraft forces were effectively deployed.

Alas, the gaping hole in Dolittle's plan was what happens to the flight crews after the bombing, beyond a vague directive to "land in China." In fact, none of the 16 B-25s landed safely. Most crashed somewhere along the Chinese coastline, or the crews intentionally ditched them or bailed out. Two crews were captured by the Japanese, and another was interned by the (supposedly friendly) Soviet regime.

Unexpectedly, the film follows the wounded Lawson and his men on their terrible journey to safety, aided by the Chinese natives currently under the harsh thumb of the Japanese. A little-known piece of history is that the Japanese killed an estimated 250,000 Chinese citizens while searching for the American air crews. The movie shows them burning a village the Americans had just left, but I had no idea the retribution was on that scale.

Every one of Lawson's crew is seriously injured except Thatcher, who heroically guarded and tended to his mates. Lawson eventually loses his leg after it becomes infected. The film ends with an odd denouement in which Lawson, recuperating in a Washington D.C. hospital, refuses to allow Ellen to see him because of his injuries. Of course, with a little (likely fictitious) assistance from Doolittle, they are joyously reunited.

I don't often say this, but "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" is a film that's due for a remake. I enjoyed the movie, despite its overly long and mushy first half, but the dramatic way the Doolittle raid was planned and executed is riveting stuff.

 3 stars out of four

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