Sunday, October 07, 2012

Tonight's Movie: Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

Having very recently watched films with Don DeFore and the young Robert Mitchum, I thought it would be interesting to watch them portray members of Doolittle's Raiders and pulled our copy of THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO off the shelf.

My sons have both enjoyed the movie, as well as the book, but I hadn't seen the film myself since I was a teenager.  I found that the only part that seemed familiar was the raid itself, so it was almost like watching a completely new movie. The film is long, at 138 minutes, but extremely absorbing; I found it by turns very interesting, moving, and impressive.

The film depicts the historic Doolittle Raid bombing Japan in April 1942, mere months after Pearl Harbor. It follows several volunteer flight crews as they train under Lt. Col. James Doolittle (Spencer Tracy) for a mission so secret they only know it's dangerous, but they have no idea what it is they're going to do. The film is divided into three main sections, depicting the men's training, the mission itself, and their struggle for survival after crash landing in China.

The movie particularly focuses on the crew of the Ruptured Duck, including pilot Ted Lawson (Van Johnson), navigator Charles McClure (Don DeFore), and gunner David Thatcher (Robert Walker). Robert Mitchum plays Bob Gray, Lawson's close friend and pilot of one of the other B-25s.

My favorite part of the film was the depiction of the fully loaded B-25s taking off from the aircraft carrier Hornet. The combination of know-how and sheer guts to launch those huge planes from the short deck of an aircraft carrier was awe-inspiring.

While the film certainly stirs patriotic feelings and pride for what the "Greatest Generation" accomplished during World War II, I was also struck -- given that this film was released during the war -- by a thoughtful conversation between Lawson and Gray where they reflect on the strangeness of knowing that their efforts will result in civilian deaths. They are regretful but acknowledge it must be so if they don't want to see their own families bombed back home in the U.S.

The actors are all excellent, and I particularly noted by the transitions made by DeFore and Walker. DeFore's character starts out as a happy-go-lucky movie camera nut, but his depiction of his character's agony when he suffers severely broken shoulders in the crash is heart-rending. Meanwhile Walker's character, the kid on the crew, is the only man who's uninjured; he matures as he becomes the caretaker of his fellow crew members. The young man who previously was a nervous green flyer shows his mettle as he nurses the other men and volunteers to stay and help defend the most injured men from the approaching Japanese army, rather than evacuate.

The cast is endlessly interesting, with fun faces popping up throughout the movie. To my surprise, Robert Mitchum's WEST OF THE PECOS costar, Bill Williams, turns up in THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO, in one of his very first movies; he plays one of the men sharing quarters with Van Johnson on the Hornet.

Similarly, character actor Moroni Olsen was a judge in last night's movie, EAST OF THE RIVER (1940). He appears as a general in the very first scene of THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO.

I particularly enjoyed Louis Jean Heydt as the Navy man who trains the flight crews on aircraft carrier operations and Paul Langton as a lieutenant charged with gathering together the B25 crews. They were small roles, but the men made the most of their limited screen time.

Leon Ames turns up in just a couple of scenes as a military man with expertise on Japan. Don't blink and you'll spot John Dehner at a briefing on the Hornet. Future writer-director Blake Edwards also has a small role as a crewman. The large cast also includes Gordon McDonald, Stephen (Horace) McNally, John Reilly, Donald Curtis, William "Bill" Phillips, Alan Napier, Ann Shoemaker, Selena Royle, and Benson Fong.

Phyllis Thaxter, who just passed on in August at the age of 90, plays Van Johnson's devoted wife, while Jacqueline White (THE NARROW MARGIN) plays Paul Langton's wife. Another of the wives is played by Dorothy Morris, who passed away late in 2011. Morris, incidentally, had appeared with Mitchum and DeFore the previous year in THE HUMAN COMEDY (1943).

The film was directed by Mervyn LeRoy from a screenplay by Dalton Trumbo. The black and white cinematography was shared by Harold Rosson and Robert Surtees.

THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO is available on DVD in the six-film World War II Collection, Vol. II. It's also available as a single-title DVD. It can be rented from Netflix.

The movie can also be rented for streaming from Amazon Instant Video.

Turner Classic Movies will show THIRTY SECONDS OVER TOKYO as part of Spencer Tracy Month early on October 23rd, 2012. TCM has the trailer available, along with several clips, such as this one which provides an overview of some of the great cast.

This classic World War II film is very much recommended.


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