Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944): WWII Written by Dalton Trumbo

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“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.

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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.

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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.

3.5/5 Stars

Go for Broke! (1951)

goforbrokeWWII is always a fascinating touchstone of history because it has some many intricate facets extending from the Pacific to the European Theater to the American Home Front and so on, each bringing with it unique stories of everyday individuals doing extraordinary things. One of the best-kept secrets is the 442nd Infantry Division later joined with the 100th and effectively making the first all Japanese-American fighting unit which served over in Italy and France.

But perhaps the most striking thing about this band of men was the inherent hypocrisy they unwittingly pointed out within America’s own society. As their loved ones sat enclosed in tar paper barracks and barbed wire fences within internment camps, these courageous lads went off to prove their allegiance to their country. Reflecting the very freedoms and liberty that America was founded on, in spite of the injustices that were thrown their way.

But really instead of simply reflecting the bad, Go for Broke! is a far more empowering story and Robert Pirosh’s film does a stellar job at showcasing these men with a great deal of respect. He had previously shown an aptitude for realistic war films like Battleground, and joining forces with Van Johnson once more, he delivers another authentic picture.

Going so far to fill out the rank and file of the film with real 442nd veterans, Go for Broke! begins with a newly promoted officer born and bred in Texas. At first, he shows a slight distaste in being called upon to lead a unit of Japanese, partly due to the fact that he was torn away from his buddies, the other simply a result of his own narrow-mindedness.

After all, he becomes the stand-in for the prototypical viewer and as his character slowly begins to evolve as they go through boot camp, then Italy, then France, the impact on the viewer is duly noted. Thus, although he proves to be an important figure, it should not be forgotten that in many ways the 442nd is front and center.

Among the men we get to know are the level-headed Sam (Lane Nakano) who has a girl waiting for him back in the states while his family remains interned as public aliens. Tommy is the runt of the group, a funny sort of fellow, who makes the ultimate sacrifice when he gives his beloved pig to a starving family. There’s the bespectacled college boy who was in the process of becoming an architect and the defiant Chick (George Miki), ready to fight with whoever crosses him. Far from being stiff, these men lend a certain realism to the film that elevates it to that of a fascinating historical artifact.

There are some wonderfully humorous moments that diffuse the conflict of cultural identity. The recruits of the 442nd walk up the gangplank as the soldier in charge struggles to read off their family names and as each man passes by he responds with a very basic anglicized name. George W. and Thomas H. In another moment an angry Van Johnson looks over at his second in command Oharra during a patrol to inquire what a Japanese word means. Without skipping a beat the man quickly apologizes, “Sorry sir, I don’t speak Japanese.” Only later as these soldiers become his loyal comrades does he learn what “Backatare” means. It becomes a film where soldiers from California and Texas can poke fun at each other, but that’s only because mutual respect builds between the 36th and 442nd.

Lt. Grayson reveals his final transformation when he enters into an altercation with his old pal Cully who has a heavy dose of bigotry. By the end of the film, the man’s still not exactly a saint, but his eyes are opened at least a little bit. And in the end, the 442nd comes to the aid of their brethren. The film concludes with one of their greatest triumphs, rescuing the lost battalion pinned down by the enemy on all sides. The casualty tolls were high, but in such moments the Japanese-Americans proved their grit and determination right alongside all the other fighting men. This is the film they deserved and the type of recognition that they deserve even today. It’s a shame that more stories like Go For Broke! have not been told, but it makes this one all the more important.

3.5/5 Stars

Go for Broke (1951)

Starring Van Johnson along with a handful of WW II vets, this film looks like your average war film. It follows this group of soldiers from their initial training all the way to deployment. Then, we follow their exploits in Italy and France that coincide with their everyday interactions. However, this film is very significant because it actually tells the story of Japanese Americans in the 442nd infantry unit. They not only faced the enemy on the battlefield, they also had to deal with a great deal of prejudice within the armed forces. However, as with the example of Van Johnson, the Budha-Heads were able to win respect because of their courageous fighting. In the climatic moments of the film these men save a lost division and then return home as heroes. Since I am half-Japanese it was exciting for me to come across this film because this kind of topic has not been covered often. The fact that it actually had Nisei actors and was  made quite soon after the war is also amazing.

3.5/5 Stars

The Caine Mutiny (1954)

With a stellar cast starring Humphrey Bogart, Van Johnson, Fred MacMurray, and Jose Ferrer among others, the film begins with a young ensign assigned to the mine sweeper named the Caine. After the first lax captain is reassigned, their new commander Queeg (Bogart) is a stickler for detail and order. After a series of incidents the crew becomes increasingly annoyed with him. The situation worsesn when Queeg begins to obsess about a few missing servings of strawberries. All these events boil over during a typhoon when the second-in-command (Johnson) prodded on, feels Queeg is unfit for command and he takes over control of the Caine. In the ensuing court martial, he is put on trial for mutiny and his attorney (Ferrer) must try to show Queeg to be truly unstable. Although he wins the case, everyone soon comes to realize Queeg was just a war-wearied man who gave a lot of himself. Despite some stark revelations the young ensign finally marries his girl and gets a pleasant surprise when he is reassigned to another boat.

4/5 Stars