Seen by Martin before? Yes
What did I expect? I’d seen it, and I remember thinking that it was a decent war epic.
What did I get? Poor Tora! Tora! Tora! I wanted so much to like it. It’s an honorable attempt at intelligent popular entertainment on a grand scale, but it just doesn’t work. It’s hard to imagine a war epic being more prosaic and lifeless than this one. It has no flow, it’s just a series of events.
If the audience’s emotional involvement didn’t matter, Tora! Tora! Tora! might rate pretty highly. It presents a clear and uninteresting, but studiedly accurate, account of the events leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the debates on the Japanese side on whether and how to do it and the mixups and lapses on the American side that permitted it to succeed. The trouble is that there’s nothing on the thematic or emotional side that resonates at all. There’s also no real puzzle or problem that is begging to be solved — the irony being that there is considerable controversy about whether FDR knew about the plans beforehand and permitted the attacks to happen. But Tora! Tora! Tora! isn’t interested in that, it wants to tell the “official” version. Which is fine, except that it’s not terribly interesting.
A few noteworthy American actors do their best to elevate the material — Robards, Balsam, Cotten, E. G. Marshall, James Whitmore — but they’re outnumbered by mediocre decisions on the directing and screenwriters. In the diplomatic scenes set in Washington, Cotten and George Macready never for an instant cease seeming to be actors pretending to be serious statesmen. The movie could perhaps have benefited from a really big star in one role, to focus the audience’s sympathies. Relying on a larger group of good character actors just emphasized the lack of focus.
The consensus view is that the first half of Tora! Tora! Tora! is stiff, but at least the final scenes of the attack itself are impressive. I agree, up to a point. The aerial stuff and explosions and all that are perfectly fine, but there is still something off about the reactions of the military people in Hawaii — there’s too much stunned silence and not enough hysteria, or something. It all reads as primarily an intellectual problem — primarily disbelief. Let that stand as synecdoche for the movie’s approach in general, too much stolid exposition and nothing emotional to latch onto.
What here smacks of 1970? Hard to say. The respectful involvement of the Japanese was something that could not have happened at any earlier point.
IMDB score: 7.5
My score: 3
Directors: Richard Fleischer, Kinji Fukasaku, Toshio Masuda
Writers: Larry Forrester, Ryuzo Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, Akira Kurosawa (uncredited)
Starring: Martin Balsam, Joseph Cotten, E. G. Marshall, Tatsuya Mihashi, James Whitmore, Sō Yamamura, Jason Robards, George Macready
IMDB synopsis: In 1941 the Japanese are at odds with the United States on a number of issues which they are attempting to resolve via their Washington embassy. In case this diplomacy fails, the military are hatching plans for a surprise early Sunday morning air attack on the U.S. base at Pearl Harbour. American intelligence is breaking the Japanese diplomatic messages but few high-ups are prepared to believe that an attack is likely, let alone where or how it might come.