Sunday, July 04, 2010

TORA! TORA! TORA! (1970)

A friend loaned me these two war films over the Fourth of July weekend and they wound up making an interesting study in contrasts. Both are fairly straightforward big-budget recreations of famous WWII events, both use big chunks of dialogue in a foreign language (with subtitles), and the narratives of both seesaw back and forth between the opposing sides, but the ways in which they differ are worth examining.

TORA! TORA! TORA! looks at the invasion of Pearl Harbor from the viewpoints of the Japanese and the Americans. Strictly speaking, I don't suppose the Americans can be said to have had a "viewpoint" at the time since they were mostly unaware of the plans for the invasion until it was launched--and that word "mostly" is crucial. There is a conspiracy theory out there that says FDR knew about the plans and allowed them to go forth in order to goad America into entering the war, but this isn't seriously mentioned in the film, which implies that our un-preparedness for the Japanese invasion of the Hawaiian naval base on December 7, 1941 was due to a string of errors of judgment and communication. The Japanese were engaged in a war against the Chinese which America opposed and were suffering from American blockades, but according to this film, the decision to attack Pearl Harbor was not unanimously favored among Japanese officers; General Yamamoto was afraid that such a move would force them to take the side of Nazi Germany and he did not want that. Still, the pro-attack side wins out and an ultimatum is ordered to be sent to the White House by Japanese diplomats, though it's not received until after the attack. Coded Japanese messages are broken quickly by the Americans, but not taken seriously enough along the chain of command.

The first half of the film covers the days just before the attack, cutting back and forth between Japan, Hawaii, and Washington (with all Japanese dialogue presented in Japanese with English subtitles); the second half, after an intermission, is a recreation of the attack. The first thing I noticed about the film is that, unlike in most Hollywood war movies, there are no personal stories, no romances, no fictionalized characters to draw attention away from the unfolding of the "true" story. At first, this seemed like a pleasant novelty, a way to make the movie seem more like a documentary, and it was helpful that real historical figures like Admiral Halsey and General George C. Marshall were identified by subtitles. But as the first half dragged on without any character development, it wound up feeling mostly like a lot of exposition, like information being conveyed in a classroom. The acting was OK, but I think the actors (including Martin Balsam and Jason Robards) felt reined in by portraying real people as though they were chess figures being moved around by the forces of history. However, the last hour of the movie, given over to the actual attack, is quite well done, though because we don't get to know any characters very well, sorrow over individual human loss is at a minimum. The effects are excellent, especially given that there was no CGI involved, and many of the ground scenes really give off a "you are there" feeling.

THE LONGEST DAY is the story of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944. Like TORA!, it presents two different perspectives, the Allies and the Germans (and within the Allies viewpoint, the British and American storylines are kept mostly separate until near the end). It also relies on subtitles for the German speakers and to identify historical figures such as Eisenhower and Rommel. The actual recreation of the storming of the beaches (and the paratroopers activities the night before) is done very well. Unlike TORA!, this film has fictional characters whom we meet and learn a bit about, so we have some emotional investment in them as people. Unfortunately, this winds up being a bit of a liability as there just too many characters introduced. Many if not most of them only have one or two scenes, and the fact that a star-studded cast is used (over 20 "name" actors including Sean Connery, Roddy McDowell, Rod Steiger, Robert Mitchum, Henry Fonda, Robert Wagner, Richard Burton, and John Wayne) is a bit distracting. Instead of caring about them as characters, we're busy waiting for the next celebrity to pop up. There's also the overly-dramatic dialogue, reminiscent of movies of the 30s and 40s. For example, when Richard Burton enters a mess hall in a dazed state and is asked by someone if he knows the whereabouts of another pilot, Burton replies, "Yes… (long dramatic pause) … He's at the bottom of the Channel."

Still, once you get used to this, the action moves along nicely and the production values are quite good. John Wayne is basically playing John Wayne, at which he excels. Richard Beymer, the romantic lead in WEST SIDE STORY (pictured with Richard Burton), is almost laughably bad as a cocky young soldier, but he gets a good scene at the end when, lost and alone in the French countryside, he stumbles across Burton, who's alive and who has killed a German sniper but who has been seriously wounded in the leg. Burton gets what might be seen as the "punch line" of the movie when he says to Beymer, "He's dead, I'm crippled, you're lost. Do you suppose war is always like this?" Though the beach landing scenes are not nearly as impressive those in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN over 30 years later, they look real enough, and the tracking shots following the soldiers out of the boats through the water to the beach are effective. My favorite parts of the film follow the French Resistance members in the villages and the Allied paratroopers who parachute in the night before, with a particularly good scene showing the invasion of the village of Sainte-Mare-Eglise.

The other thing to consider is that this film was actually made first, in 1962, near the end of the classic Hollywood era. It was likely the first epic war film (in terms of money spent, actors and resources used, and length--almost three hours), coming as it did after a long series of war movies that focused on small groups of men in smaller, more intimate circumstances, and it set up the formula that TORA! TORA! TORA! used eight years later. I reviewed them in reverse order because that's how I watched them. Even though the later film had better effects and cinematography (and color), it’s the earlier black & white film I think I'd return to first, as it did a better job of engaging the emotions, and making the agonies and rewards of war more understandable. Still, both are worth seeing. [DVD]

No comments: