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Tora! Tora! Tora!

Year: 1970
Director: Richard Fleischer/Kinji Fukusaku
Cast: Jason Robards
I didn't realise before seeing this film how recently it was made. For some reason I'd thought it was from the 1950's and expected a cheesy golden years drama full of the words 'shucks' and 'swell'. And worse, I expected special effects like toy boats being sloshed about in a bathtub and pilots sitting in fake cockpits in the studio with films of the sky being projected behind them.

There are one or two corny flourishes like it - most notably in the overzealous titles sequences where the music is reminiscent of the alien invasion movies that were huge in the early postwar years.

It's actually a deadly serious account of the events leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbour by the Japanese Navy, and considering it's already over 30 years old, the special effects are still effective today. It must have been one of the most sweeping and epic shoots in movie history at the time.

In it's own way, it's actually on a bigger scale than the much-derided 'remake', Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor. Whereas pretty boy pilots Ben Affleck and Josh Hartnett comprised the kernel of the story, Fleischer's tale looks at the bigger picture; the political machinations involved, the failure of the military administrative systems to properly prepare for the inevitable and the military & political men who played a part. It didn't concentrate on two low-level grunts who become idealized heroes in the American Way, but showed the forces from all quarters.

It was also a co-production between American and Japanese teams, and it's a refreshingly realistic look simply at what happened, with no political or ideological agendas, such as Pearl Harbor's entirely redundant reprisal attack on Tokyo, probably a demand by the studio to make the film more marketable by showing American winning in the end. Both sides of the story and characters from both sides are given equal weight.

The first half of the film is pretty talky, but if you're interested in the history, it's fascinating to watch the disintegrating relations between the US and Japan, the bloated systems that oversaw the armed forces at the time and the men who tried to circumvent them. I believe the really interesting parts of the story were in the general who couldn't be reached because he was riding his horse, the telegraph operator who left a message in a tray for two hours because it wasn't marked urgent, the radar operators who couldn't notify their base of anything suspicious because nobody had thought to give them a phone.

The tension builds slowly and effectively thanks to excellent dialogue and a feeling that you're almost looking at a documentary by each major character being identified onscreen.

When the attack comes, there's nothing small-scale about it, and while it doesn't have the Michael Bay $70m sets or CG, it's just as powerful as Japanese Zeros fly low over battleships and airfields and rain destruction as the American forces tried desperately to shoot back or get a single plane off the ground. It depicts the two pilots who managed to become airborne (the inspiration for the Affleck and Hartnett characters in Pearl Harbour), as well as the black cook who took up the middy gun when nobody else was around (played in Bay's version by Cuba Gooding Jr).

And there's no toy boats in miniature tanks. The ships' surfaces were built on floating barges and actually bombed, radio-controlled fighters sent careening down runways on fire. There's no sense of claustrophobia in the special effects because of the lower budgets or technology of the era.

Having seen it after Pearl Harbor, it's apparent what a bald-faced remake the latter film was, borrowing and referencing from it heavily, even in Commander in Chief Yamamoto's final musing; 'All we've done is awaken a sleeping giant'. It's an example of the best melding of drama, action, effects and storytelling in a movie even today.

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