“One-hundred and thirty-one days after December 7, 1941, a handful of young men, who had never dreamed of glory, struck the first blow at the heart of Japan. This is their true story we tell here.”
It’s easy enough to lump Air Force and Destination Tokyo with this subsequent film because we have the impediment of years between us. We have yet another cast rallied around a star; this time it’s Spencer Tracy leading the charge, as the pragmatic James Doolittle, on a highly confidential mission that would be known to future generations as the Doolittle Raids.
In the contemporary moment, if they had enough time and/or money an audience would possibly have a much easier time differentiating because each picture took on a slightly unique facet of the war. Air Force is all but a flying fortress in the days leading up to and directly following Pearl Harbor. Destination Tokyo is about the recon needed for the Doolittle Raid. 30 Seconds Over Tokyo is a bit like the triumphant exclamation point or at least the start of one.
The work wasn’t done for the Allies but it was a sign of forward progress. And with the benefit of hindsight, we can fill in the open-ended conclusion. We know V-J Day eventually happened only a year later. Consequently, it was also deemed one of the more accurate war pictures as far as military details go.
Much of Tracy’s time is spent as a no-nonsense observer of what is going on. The rest of his performance feels like it’s made up of monologues and yet, as is normally the case, he’s so candid and earnest when he delivers them. He quickly draws the moviegoer in just as he does with all the crew members under his command. It’s the magic he has over a rapt audience to the point you believe every word he says.
Otherwise, Lt. Ted Lawson (Van Johnson) is pretty much our lead. I know he’s not much of an emoter, but he might as well be our stand-in for the American G.I. For the time being, he is surrounded by a bevy of compatriots including Robert Walker, Don DeFore, and Robert Mitchum, among others. They all raise their hands when it comes to volunteering for a top-secret mission.
There’s an electricity in the air as they prepare for news of their assignment even as they are warned that they will be pushed to the limit of their capabilities and then some. The utmost secrecy is maintained and their training is commenced in earnest. The work is hard and they play hard after.
One of the crowd is a goofy down-home caricature portrayed by John R. Reilly. He can be found pounding away to the rhythms of “Chattanooga Choo Choo” in the barracks, intent on any merriment he can muster during off-hours. Meanwhile, the crew of the self-proclaimed Ruptured Duck becomes proficient in their new skill set.
In his free time, Lawson (Johnson) looks to get all the time in with his beaming wife as possible. Though Phyliss Thaxter glows with utter radiance in every scene, it does feel a bit overly twee at times.
Since a group of the fellas have their brides with them, they get together to dance, finding solidarity in songs like “Deep in The Heart of Texas” and a Hollywood mainstay, “Auld Lange Syne.” It’s especially effective for wringing out every last drop of emotion. Wives tearfully cling to their husbands for the last time, knowing that they will soon be separated for who knows how long.
Sure enough, the men get their assignment after coming aboard an aircraft carrier. They will be paying a visit to Tokyo by air and the anticipation sets in even as the flyers all look a bit like fish out of water (on the water). Regardless, it becomes a perfect excuse to play up the camaraderie between the army and the navy away from the football field. They’ve got a job to do, and they’ll do it together.
Robert Mitchum and Van Johnson share a most curious conversation lounging on the prow of the boat, staring off into the darkness. One can only imagine it is screenwriter Dalton Trumbo speaking — not in propaganda but humanity.
First, Johnson offers up how his mom had a Jap gardener once who seemed like a nice fellow. Mitchum says he doesn’t like ’em, but he doesn’t hate ’em either. They agree you get mixed up sometimes. Where are they going with this meandering interchange?
The answer: Trumbo’s brand of what might be most precisely termed “American progressivism.” Some rationale must be proposed for what is at hand and so he does his best. Though it foregoes demonizing the enemy, it takes an alternative path with the same conclusion. It’s the most rational progression. Drop a bomb on them or they’ll be dropping a bomb on Ellen or loved ones like her. It’s highly practical even as it remains problematic.
Still, the gears are turning. They have their final briefing with Doolittle and agree to meet in Chungking for the biggest party they’ve ever seen. In reality, the moment of truth really does feel like little more than thirty seconds. When they hit the mainland a flurry of Japanese Zeroes fly over, only to pass them by without notice, moving on with their normal patrol. It’s a lucky break.
They end up dropping their loads on the designated targets with efficiency. It’s the aftermath where things get a bit dicier, not so much due to the enemy but weather conditions. The Ruptured Duck is forced to bail out, sustaining injuries, and rescued by Chinese locals under bleak conditions.
Though poorly resourced and kept on the run by impending Japanese, the Chinese are held aloft as loyal Allies ready to aid in this joint cause against the Japanese. It becomes so intriguing how they become such sympathetic figures. Two close-ups come to mind. The Chinese characters are not kept at arm’s length. We are given a chance to study their faces. It’s maybe not a lot, but it’s something. The juxtaposition between the Chinese station versus the Japanese is made supremely obvious.
So while Thirty 30 Over Tokyo has understandably been lauded for a certain level of historical accuracy, there is still a necessity to parse through its stances as a cultural artifact. Like any film, it is a product of its times and a tribute to the minds behind it, whether Mervyn LeRoy or Dalton Trumbo. Each man no doubt had his own agenda, be it bugetary or ideological.
To that point, the picture is framed by a corny romantic crescendo that’s difficult to take seriously. Otherwise, it an intermittently rewarding portrait of a specific time in WWII history. It’s difficult to remake a movie such as this without losing some of its inherent credibility.