Friday, 29 December 2006

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)

Tora! Tora! Tora!

Tora! Tora! Tora!, a docu-drama telling the story of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, was not well received in America on its original release. Most pointed the finger of failure at its attempt to be historically accurate, portraying both sides of the story fairly, resulting in a film that was too long, too dull, and too documentary-like in its approach. 'Tora-ble! Tora-ble! Tora-ble' screamed the headlines of one review, which seems extremely unfair - you only have to look at the more recent Pearl Harbor to see what happens when you Hollywood-ise a story and start inventing audience crowd-pleasers (a silly love affair in the case of the latter picture). Re-appraised over thirty years later, the apparent weakness of 'sticking to the facts' comes across as the film's greatest asset.

A lot of new information about the event that effectively forced the Americans to take part in World War II is presented in Tora! Tora! Tora!. While it's true that the film takes its time to tell its story, the final half-hour featuring the big attack, has enough explosions, smoke and flames to satiate the appetite of the most fervent action-obsessed fan boy. That the whole thing was achieved in the days before CGI was available is nothing short of miraculous.

The use of two different teams to film the Japanese and American viewpoints, works well and the film moves easily between the two different sides as the momentous events of December 7th 1941 approach. Unfortunately despite being the second most expensive film made at the time - 'it cost several times more than the original invasion on which it is based cost' quipped one Fox exec - the film was an American box office disaster, although it was saved by huge success at the Japanese box office.

I think the Japanese audience got it right, and whilst the catalogue of mistakes and the ultimate result of those mistakes may mean the end result is a bit of a downer for any Americans, it's a film that's worth watching if mistakes are not to be repeated. 'I fear we have awoken a slumbering giant', the Japanese commander is quoted saying at the end of the film, with subsequent events proving him right.

The film is lushly photographed and well executed, although the characters featured are not the main story here - it's the event itself, and the politics leading up to it, that feature most. The Japanese director performs a better job of making the main characters on the Japanese side real flesh and blood characters we can identify with, but then the American director had less to work with on that front. The largely unknown cast of 'character' actors mean that there are no distractions from investing oneself in the story, although the key word here is 'investment' and you need to choose to commit yourself to the film if you're goint to enjoy the journey it wants to take you on. This is not a film you can just dip into, or watch as background, and it demands your attention throughout. It's not a short film either, with an intermission half way through being needed for those with weak bladders or uncomfortable chairs. But if you're as weak on history as I am you'll find this a fascinating insight into how one mistake on top of another can ultimately lead to unmitigated disaster.

Tora! Tora! Tora! screencap

As with other Cinema Reserve releases, the main feature is presented in its best possible format. The tin case holds a booklet with notes on the film and two discs - one with the main feature and a commentary from a Japanese historian and the American film director, the other featuring a 90 minute 'Making of' documentary, a 25-minute TV special 'Hollywood Backstory' on the film and ten fascinating Movietone news segments made covering the events that fateful day in December 1941. There's a certain amount of repetition, but each segment has new details on the politics, particularly the problems with the originally hired Japanese director, Akira Kurosawa, who had to be 'let go' as rampant ego and paranoia took hold.

The MTV generation won't like the film much - it takes too much time to build up to its conclusion, and doesn't feature the fast-paced editing and over-the-top camera shots that modern audiences expect from blockbusters. But for the rest of us, this is a fascinating film that shows the current mess in Iraq is simply a repetition of the series of blunders that have gone before. In this excellent Cinema Reserve presentation, the DVD comes highly recommended.

Tora! Tora! Tora! screencap

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