Tora! Tora! Tora! is a period piece in two senses of the phrase. One meaning is obvious: the film presents a detailed recreation of the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, and the events leading up to it, at incredible multiples of the cost and preparation time required for the actual event. The second meaning may be less obvious, but is more relevant for contemporary viewers—Tora! Tora! Tora! is one of the last of its breed, an old-fashioned Hollywood epic produced at a time when that style of filmmaking had pretty much worn out its welcome with cinema audiences.
When Tora! Tora! Tora! was released in 1970, it was already a dinosaur in a world that had embraced a new style of film-making exemplified by groundbreaking films such as Bonnie and Clyde and Easy Rider. Dull extravagence was out, grit and “relevance” were in. Attitudes toward life and society had also changed, so a film about the heroism of war was particularly ill-timed, given the increasing opposition to America’s involvement in Vietnam.
Given the perspective of time, however, Tora! Tora! Tora! doesn’t look so bad—it’s no masterpiece, but it has aged better than expected, and offers a lot to enjoy even if it does seem determined to try your patience with its length (2 hours 25 minutes) and determinedly expository dialogue. As is well-known, it’s really two films in one, telling the story of Pearl Harbor from both the American and Japanese points of view.
For my money, the Japanese side of the story, directed by Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasaku, is a lot more interesting than the American side, directed by Richard Fleischer. For one thing, preparing for and going into battle is inherently more dramatic than all the things the Americans were doing instead of preparing for the attack that came. The script and acting on the Japanese side of the film is also a lot more subtle (multi-dimensional characters in a war film—what an idea!), so I’m afraid the verdict for the film is the same as for the attack itself: Japan 1, America 0.
The cast is not exactly all-star, but a fine assemblage of character actors (there was no money in the budget for any Hollywood stars, the one blockbuster element that is lacking in Tora! Tora! Tora!). For the American side you have, among others, Martin Balsam, Joseph Cotton, E.G. Marshall, James Whitmore, Jaaon Robards, and Leon Ames. For the Japanese, So Yamamura, Tatsuya Mihashi, Takahiro Tamura, Shogo Shimada, and Eijiro Tono. They’re all capable professionals who get the job done, and if none of their characters invite the audience to identify with them, that’s the fault of the script and direction rather than the actors.
No doubt film audiences were more patient in 1970 than they are today, but it still takes a long time to get to the action, and the deliberate and didactic way historical events are spelled out with title cards (“With the signing of the Tri-Partite Pact, Japan becomes the third member of the Axis Alliance”) over tableau vivants of the event in question may leave you wondering if you are watching an educational newsreel rather than a feature film. Still, for World War II buffs, there’s a lot of pleasure to be had just watching the events of the attack on Pearl Harbour unfold, pageant-style. The film was made with the cooperation of the Navy, who may have been hoping for a success along the lines of Fox’s 1972 film The Longest Day, as well as a chance to play a role in the blockbuster recreation of one of the few events of World War II that was most popularized for American audiences.
The technical effects are impressive, particularly considering that everything you see had to be staged (no CGI in 1970!), either with models or in reality. A.D. Flowers and L.B. Abbott deservedly won an Oscar for special effects, and Tora! Tora! Tora! was also nominated for Oscars in the categories of art direction, cinematography, film editing, and sound. In small doses, this film can be quite enjoyable; the problem is, again, that it’s almost two and a half hours long, and most of that is taken up with scenes of people talking to each other, alternating with impressive but static panoramas accentuated by a determinedly old-fashioned score by Jerry Goldsmith that never misses a chance to scream at you: “This is really important!”
The Blu-Ray release of Tora! Tora! Tora! will appeal most to people who are already fans of the film, or who are interested in it because of the historical events portrayed. Fox has packaged the disc in a handsome, book-format case, with 22 pages of notes including information about the featured aircraft, the production process, and the principal characters in the historical events and the actors who play them in the film. The disc itself includes a generous package of extras, including a commentary track by Fleischer and film historian Stuart Galbraith IV, the “extended Japanese version” of the film (about four minutes longer), a documentary about the attack, an AMC Backstory feature on the film, a making-of documentary, a collection of Fox Movietone newsreels about the attack, two galleries of photos, and the original theatrical trailer.