Representing a great opportunity for historical spectacle that was sacrificed on the altar of its own leviathan scope, Tora! Tora! Tora! was conceived by Twentieth Century-Fox chief Daryl F. Zanuck as a companion piece to his epic war movie The Longest Day (1962). Whereas the earlier film was a star-studded reenactment of the D-Day invasion, focusing primarily on the heroism of a successful Allied assault, Tora! Tora! Tora! paints across a bigger canvas. The picture follows both American and Japanese forces before, during, and after the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941. Zanuck’s intentions were basically honorable, since he put together a coproduction with a Japanese team that was responsible for portraying their country’s soldiers in a humane light; Zanuck even hired the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa to develop and direct the Japanese half of the picture, although Kurosawa was replaced once production got underway. Journeyman Richard Fleischer, an efficient traffic cop not known for his artistry, handled the English-language scenes.
Yet Zanuck’s overreaching vision of an opulent super-production almost inevitably generated a bloated movie in which hardware overwhelms humanity. The leaden screenplay, credited to Larry Forrester and Kurosawa allies Ryuzo Kikushima and Hideo Oguni—and based on two different books—is a dull recitation of names and dates without any memorable characterizations. In the American scenes alone, venerable actors including Martin Balsam, Joseph Cotten, E.G. Marshall, Jason Robards, and James Whitmore get lost amid the generic hordes of men in military uniforms wandering through command centers and battleship bridges. In the admirable effort to explain how and why the Japanese military caught American forces unaware, the movie provides dry description when it should provide intense drama—paradoxically, trying to do too much led the filmmakers to do too little.
Nonetheless, the movie gets exciting whenever it departs from its inept attempts at personal interplay and focuses on battlefield spectacle. Employing a huge assortment of boats and planes (plus a whole lot of pyro, of course), Fleischer stages lavish scenes of wartime destruction, all of which are jacked up by composer Jerry Goldsmith’s invigorating music. Thus, it’s no surprise that the lasting legacy of Tora! Tora! Tora! is as a stockpile of endlessly reused footage—according to Wikipedia, clips and outtakes from this film appear in Midway (1976), The Final Countdown (1980), several TV episodes and miniseries, and even Pearl Harbor (2001). So, if you’re a military-history buff, you’ll probably find a lot to enjoy in Tora! Tora! Tora!–otherwise, you might have a hard time trudging through the movie’s 144 impressive but inert minutes.
Tora! Tora! Tora!: FUNKY