Rising Sun over Despising Sam.
Next to Viet Nam, Pearl Harbor must be one of the most shameful failures in American military history. We can understand why the American meme has been twisted into “surprise attack by the Japanese”; otherwise, how was the vaunted United States war machine caught with its pants so low around its ankles? TORA! TORA! TORA! respectfully exposes the comedy of errors that positioned America bare-assed to the rising sun.
The Oxford Companion to World War II makes it clear that the notion of Japan’s 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor being a “surprise” is absolute balderdash (even though it has been drilled into American schoolkids like the mendacity of Columbus “discovering” America). The Japanese attack on Pearl was actually a “preemptive strike” to neutralize the American Pacific Fleet from retaliating against Japan when it interfered with American allies. America had also declared an energy embargo on Japan (for its war on ally China and other expansionist efforts) and, as every first year military gronk knows, an embargo is just a euphemistically polite way of declaring war, because if the embargoed country wants to defy the embargo – well, hello Sailor! (We could go on for hours tracing causalities backwards – but let’s get to those sexy Spitfires creaming the skies!)
Washington issued a “war warning” to American forces at Pearl to be on alert. Some officers took it to mean possible sabotage, some didn’t take it seriously, some wanted more confirmation, etc. So I guess you could say the “surprise” was that the hubristic American military couldn’t comprehend how anyone would have the balls to attack them. How history repeats itself (cough–Bin Ladin Determined to Strike in US)… And how the same blame game is played by the “victim” – “9-11 was an unprovoked, surprise attack!”
Still, TORA! is not apologist; it doesn’t try to push the lie of “surprise attack,” rather attempts a sincere, balanced view of the Pearl strike, and – unlike the racist, ham-laden, Yank-drawling MIDWAY (1976) – it gives the Japanese their due as warriors in their own right. This American-Japanese production enlists Richard Fleischer to direct the American scenes and two Japanese directors (Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasaku) for the Japanese scenes (originally slated for the great Akira Kurosawa, who got himself fired after being deceived by American producers); an ambitious achievement, epic, action-packed and laden with details, factual and apocryphal.
Matter of fact, it ends up being overly sympathetic to the Japanese, casting them in tragic majesty. We can clearly see why TORA! is regarded as magnificent in Japan; it not only humanizes the Japanese, but colors the main characters with all those nuances reserved for Whitey A-Listers. For example, the Japanese Commander-in-Chief in charge of the Pearl attack, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Sô Yamamura), is seen to be so much against war that he was in danger of being assassinated by extremists. “My God, the war I dreaded for so long looks inevitable.” Even whilst the Zeroes droned over the Pacific on their way to Pearl – with some generals urging Yamamoto not to call it off midway for the sake of morale – the Japanese Ambassador was being told, “Continue negotiations – remember there is no last word in diplomacy.” Do we ever hear of an enemy’s ambiguity like this? And then there are the majestic shots of Zeroes taking off from the deck of a battleship, silhouetted against a crimson sunrise; coming in low over mountains, engines thundering, ripping the dawn… Where’d I put my rising sun bandanna?!
Jason Robards, Martin Balsam and E.G. Marshall head the American cast of officers at Pearl, who become increasingly confused as conflicting orders keep straying across their desks. Their spider-sense tingling, they try to avoid sabotage by bunching all their planes in the middle of airfields, posting guards around them – unwittingly making them peachy targets for the air strike to come.
A concatenation of unforced errors up and down the chain of command – a radar dish manned by trainees, with no phone to report suspicious activity; messages received and decoded too late; messages disregarded due to bureaucratic indolence; a diplomatic message unsent due to the slowest Japanese typist in the world; smug U.S. officers thinking Pearl was safe from torpedo attack because the harbor was too shallow (what the movie fails to note is that the Japanese retrofitted their torpedoes to level off above 40 feet depth instead of the usual 75 feet); and to top off the scores of other fatal synchronicities – December 7th 1941 was, after all, a Sunday! That whole “infamy” comment by FDR was because the Japs interrupted the American day of hammock. How dare they?!
Robards receives an order from top brass – and makes his messenger read it again, just for us viewers: “If hostilities cannot be avoided, the United States desires that Japan commit the first overt act.” It was almost like they wanted Japan to attack first, to wash the blood from their souls, Pontius Pilate style.
The war footage is awe-inspiring. This shit is real! These are not CGI planes or ships; these droning, diving, death machines are hurling real metal through the sky; those aircraft carriers are lumbering real metal over the waves. The footage was created especially for this movie; no actual war footage spliced in (which was damned interesting on its own terms, but not artistically cogent for movie footage). Sure, we know that they use models for the long shots of the ships and full-scale replicas of Spitfires bombed on the runways – not the sexy Spitfires! – but in modern films we know all the warbirds and battleships are CGI, so what’s the difference? We see stuntmen literally running for their lives, as propellers careen across tarmac and fuselage shrapnel explodes out further than expected. And the B-17 Superfortress coming down on a single-wheel landing (used by the plagiarists in MIDWAY) is another example of the unbelievable footage captured for its time.
This revisionist film opens with the title card: “The American Pacific Fleet was attacked and partially destroyed by Japan on Sunday morning, December 7, 1941. This attack led to the entering of the United States into World War II…” and ends with Pearl in flames. We do not see any American retaliation, let alone rebuilding of forces. Imagine how that must have infuriated flag-waving maroon-neckers…
Admiral Yamamoto addresses his officers, tamping down their joy with his portentous “sleeping giant” admonition (which prompted them to renew their Godzilla insurance), as well as offer insight on how the “surprise attack” aspect might have originated: “I had intended to deal a fatal blow to the American fleet by attacking Pearl Harbor immediately after Japan’s official declaration of war, but according to the American radio, Pearl Harbor was attacked fifty-five minutes before our ultimatum was delivered in Washington. I can’t imagine anything that would infuriate the Americans more. I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.”
Yamamoto didn’t say that. The Japanese culture at the time makes it hard to believe he would afford America such grandiosity. Y’see, Japan was a disciplined, homogenous race, that looked down upon America as a diversity of cultures that could not get organized enough to retaliate effectively. Knowing Yamamoto’s thoughtful personality, it is more likely he said what was actually documented: “A military man can scarcely pride himself on having smitten a sleeping enemy,” which also elucidates his regrets at the attack technically preempting the official declaration of war. It would seem America – good-ole-boy smug-tit America – put that grandiloquent context in Yamamoto’s mouth, for its own elevation. It’s a little off-putting to see that after all the trouble the writers took to recount this tale free of the jangling jingoism that infuses most war movies, they end by adhering to the credo from THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962), “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Why not throw in Godzilla and make it a real party?