Think of this movie like a long, slightly boring lecture in history class, only with explosions. This attempt to do for the attack on Pearl Harbor what The Longest Day did for the D-Day invasion of Normandy succeeds on so many technical levels that it’s a shame that it fails to engage the audience emotionally in its subject matter.
\However, while it was initially a failure at the box office, I wonder if the film ultimately managed to recoup its budget through royalties from licensing pieces of the film as stock footage. It’s hard to find a movie about World War II in the Pacific over the next twenty or thirty years that doesn’t reuse at least a few shots from Tora! Tora! Tora!
The film attempts to detail the events leading up to the attack from both the Japanese and American points of view, with the Japanese scenes shot by a Japanese filmmaker. Originally, this was to be their great director, Akira Kurosawa, but his attempts to cast major benefactors in key roles infuriated Fox executives and he was replaced early in the shooting schedule.
Maybe because, by the time I saw this movie, I was already pretty familiar with the events depicted on the American side, I found the Japanese scenes to be far more interesting. Beginning with the arrival of Admiral Yamamoto (Sô Yamamura) as the new Commander-in-Chief of the Japanese Navy, the film shows him as a reluctant warrior with no desire for war with the United States. He is being forced down that road by the Army generals who control the government. Cut off by an American embargo of raw materials, they are looking covetously as French and Dutch holdings in Southeast Asia, now that those countries focused on the war in Europe.
Yamamoto is on the outs with the generals for opposing a Japanese alliance with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. Educated in the United States and an admirer of our way of life, the admiral realizes that the hope that Japan has is to eliminate the American Pacific Fleet in one stroke.
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., the Japanese ambassador (Shogo Shimada) is also sincerely hoping for a peaceful resolution to tensions between them and the United States but finds his government pushing him in the opposite direction. He also doesn’t realize that the U.S. Navy’s OP-20-G cryptanalysts had gotten so adept at decoding his messages that they were often reading them before he did. Their intercepts, code-named “Magic,” are so secret that even President Roosevelt isn’t always allowed to see them.
Despite having detailed (and increasingly threatening) intelligence about Japanese intentions, the American’s are slow to react. Admiral William Halsey (James Whitmore) is furious because his task force is being stripped of destroyers for Atlantic convoy duty. Admiral Kimmel (Martin Balsam), commander of the Pacific Fleet, agrees to take it up to the President, if necessary. General Short (Jason Robards, an actual Naval veteran of the real attack), commander of Army forces in Hawaii, is more concerned with sabotage than an attack and has his airplanes bunched together in the middle of the airfield, where they are vulnerable to air strikes. One of his squadron commanders, justifiably worried about these orders, covertly sends a few of his P-40 fighters to other small airfields around the islands.
In Washington, despite increasingly alarming radio intercepts, the Naval Intelligence folks behind “Magic” are having a hard time getting their superiors to take the threat seriously, at least until they pick up what appears to be a final ultimatum that the Japanese ambassador is supposed to deliver at one o’clock in the afternoon, Washington time, 7 December 1941.
At this point, the sequence of events that prevent the Japanese from delivering their ultimatum until after the attack has begun and keep the Americans from getting word to Pearl Harbor when it would do some good would be a comedy of errors if the consequences weren’t so tragic. What’s truly hard to believe is that, despite having all the warning in the world, including radar contact with the Japanese aircraft and the sinking of a submarine near the harbor on the morning of the 7th, as well as the advance intelligence, we were still caught unprepared by the attack.
The despite the urgency of the events depicted, this film seems drained of any dramatic energy. Tora! Tora! Tora! seems less like a story being told and takes on the feel of an re-enactment instead. The actors often seem more than they are reciting their lines than delivering a performance. There are a few exceptions, of course, but by the usual standards of movie-making, this one falls short of being a satisfying experience. However, the recreation of history is still exact enough to make this film a valuable contribution to the canon of war movies. And whatever its flaws, it’s still light years ahead of what Hollywood would offer on this same subject thirty years later.