BACK STORY: “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” was made in 1944 during World War II. It is based on the famous book by Ted Lawson. Lawson flew the “Ruptured Duck” in the famous Doolittle Raid. The book and movie cover the planning, preparation, execution, and aftermath of the raid from the perspective of one of the participants. The training phase of movie was filmed at Elgin Field where the actual training took place. A mock-up of an aircraft carrier deck was constructed on a sound stage and a 60’ model of the Hornet was used in a tank. Also, the USAAF provided B-25 bombers to add to the documentary feel of the flying scenes. Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo made several flights to get a feel for air combat. The movie also makes good use of newsreel footage. There is even some actual footage from the Raid. Ted Lawson and other Raiders served as consultants and the film was acknowledged as authentic by the group as a whole. The film was awarded the Oscar for Special Effects in 1945 and was nominated for Cinematography.
OPENING SCENE: The famous aviator Jimmy Doolittle (Spencer Tracy) is in the office of Hap Arnold and they discuss a secret mission to bomb Tokyo and several other Japanese cities using Army bombers taking off from a naval aircraft carrier.
SUMMARY: We next see a scene of the B-25’s flying cross country to Elgin Field in Florida. Interestingly, the scene is reminiscent of the arrival of the PT squadron in “They Were Expendable”. The crews get accustomed to their new barracks and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo throws in some realistic dialogue of the men conjecturing about the mission as soldiers and airmen have a tendency to do. “What’s the dope?”
Doolittle meets the men in your standard war movie “briefing in the assembly hall” scene. Typically, he emphasizes the importance of secrecy. After the briefing, the only major female character, Lawson’s wife Ellen (overplayed by Phyllis Thaxter), arrives to interject a romantic subplot. It’s your 1940ish movie romance that a modern audience would find corny, complete with soundtrack to match. Surprise! She’s going to have a baby. Should he give up this chance of a lifetime to be a hero for his country? Guess what he decides to do (with her full support).
The crews are taken to a runway where their training begins. They must be able to take off in less than 500 feet. The movie deemphasizes the difficulty and makes the training seem prefunctory.
It’s back to the bedroom for some more old school romancing. The actress playing Mrs. Lawson overacts and attempts to portray the perfect military wife. This is followed by a night club scene that continues to lay the schmaltz on thick.
We get the flying across the country montage as the unit rendezvous with the U.S.S. Hornet. There is a bit of humor as Lawson gets lost in the maze that is a carrier below decks. One of the airmen says “I’ve got a girl back home. If we get back, I’m gonna marry her.” In a shocking breech of war movie clichés, he does not get killed!
Spencer Tracy makes another appearance to justify his fat pay check as he explains the mission. The men are appropriately impressed with the boldness of the objective. Later on deck, Lawson and Thatcher talk about the mission. They refreshingly do not hate the Japanese and there is no mention of revenge for Pearl Harbor. Lawson says “You suddenly realize you’re gonna dump a ton of high explosives on one of the biggest cities in the world… I don’t pretend to like the idea of killing a bunch of people, but it’s a case of drop a bomb on them or pretty soon they’ll be dropping one on Ellen”. (Shame on you if you feel at this point that both things happening would be great.) Less realistic is the depiction of the love fest between the sailors and the Army air crews. Their love and respect for each other may have been factual, but flies in the face of the more common depiction of a bar-fight-waiting-to-happen that we see in most war movies.
|the "Ruptured Duck" over Tokyo|
It’s on to China with not enough fuel. Lawson is forced to crash land off the coast at night. Several crew members are injured including Lawson who has a bad leg. There is some scene chewing in this scene, but the movie is mostly free of this ( except Lawson’s wife ). We even get a flashback to her saying “The baby is why you’re coming back to us”.
The Chinese arrive and take them to a hut. They are given cigarettes which in 1940’s war movies is a symbol of friendship. They are moved by litters to keep ahead of the very angry Japanese. The injured are in terrible pain, but of course are stoical about it. They reach a hospital and Lawson is diagnosed with gangrene. “Doc” White who had graduated from Harvard Medical School performs the amputation which is not graphic but has some fine acting by Van Johnson. In a cute scene, Chinese kids sing the National Anthem in Chinese. They are finally able to reach an airfield where they are evacuated by an American plane.
Mrs. Lawson finds about the lost limb in a phone call from Doolittle. Lawson does not want to tell her because he feels she will feel he’s not the man he was ( cliché alert ). On her part, she’s worried she will think she is fat ( even though she is not showing after all these months being pregnant ).
THE FINAL SCENE: Doolittle visits Lawson to tell him he should tell his wife about the injury because she can take it. Lawson wants to wait until his artificial leg is ready. Doolittle leaves and the wife enters for a surprise reunion. She takes one look at the stump and flees crying. Just kidding! Lawson gets up to run into her arms and falls. They wrap up as the movie wraps up. Surprisingly the movie does not close with mention of the significance of the Raid which would be standard for a movie of this type.
Action - 6
Acting - 6 some scene chewing, especially the wife and a corn-pone, comic relief Southern airman
Accuracy - 8
Realism - 7
Plot - 7
OVERALL - 7
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? I found the romantic subplot to be cringe-inducing. However, some “significant others” may enjoy this aspect of the movie. Certainly any woman that grew up before the baby boom will be comfortable with the depiction of the relationship of a pilot and his wife. My wife liked it and pointed to the deft mixture of war and the personal lives of the men.
CRITIQUE: TSOT is an admirable depiction of one of the legendary raids in all of history. It brings one of the great war books to the screen accurately. The movie is realistic and is one of the best movies in the “war movies - air combat” genre. There are no glaring Hollywood “add to the action” scenes. This unfortunately makes the movie less entertaining to the non-war movie buff who does not care about the facts. A fictional movie about a daring bombing raid on an enemy capital could be much more exciting. (If you want that, see "Memphis Belle".) I have to give major credit to these filmmakers for avoiding that temptation.
ACCURACY: The film was lauded for its authenticity when it was released and justifiably so. It has a documentary feel to it which, by the way, makes the romantic subplot even more jarring. However, I must admit that even this is accurate because Lawson was recently married at the time of the mission. I do not know if he married a Stepford wife.
The coverage of the planning, training, take-off, bombing, crashing, and surviving are all handled much more accurately and realistically than most war movies of that time period. The director and screenwriter deserve commendation for this. Doolittle was much as we see him depicted here. He did not originate the plan, but he certainly grabbed the ball and ran with it. The practice take-offs are downplayed too much in the film. It was actually not easy to take-off in such a small space and few were able to do it at first. The interiors of the planes are accurately depicted down to little details.
They did have to launch 150 miles too soon because the fleet was spotted by a sentry boat. The movie accurately refers to the fuel problem. The take-offs did go off without a major problem, other than a sailor losing an arm to a propeller. Because the Japanese happened to be practicing an air raid drill, they were not molested by Japanese fighters who assumed they were part of the drill. Although they hit their target of Tokyo, the bombing was not as precision as shown and the damage was negligible.
The “Ruptured Duck” did crash in the surf and it was during a storm. Lawson’s leg was badly injured and it was amputated by “Doc” White. Because this was basically Lawson’s story, we do not learn much about the other planes, but I would like to point out that 8 aviators were captured by the Japanese and three were executed and one died of malnutrition.
I do find fault with the movie glossing over the penalty the Chinese paid for aiding the Raiders. It is estimated that well over 100,000 Chinese lives were lost to Japanese vengeance for the raid. Many of the Chinese depicted in the movie (including the cute kids) were killed in gruesome ways by the Japanese. No mention is made of this.
CONCLUSION: This movie stands up pretty well in comparison with other WWII movies from that time period because it avoids a lot of the clichés, the overpatriotism, and the happy ending. It does have the old school romantic subplot, but I can live with that. It added some unintentional humor. The acting is pretty good. Van Johnson was like the George Clooney of his day. He anchors the movie well. Tracy was a giant, but is not given a lot to do. It’s too bad they never made a biopic of Doolittle – that would have been a great acting opportunity!
It could have been a lot more exciting, but at the expense of realism and accuracy. As it is, it stands as one of the best aviation films and a worthy history lesson for those who do not want to have to read about Jimmy Doolittle and his remarkable Raiders. God forbid!
Next up: #97 - Northwest Passage
Coming soon: DUELING MOVIES - Thirty Seconds vs. Memphis Belle