Saturday, September 9, 2017

A Film Worth Fighting For

Once in a while, we see critical reevaluations of older films that were too quickly dismissed when they were initially released.  Jean-Pierre's Melville's "Army of Shadows" is a good example, which was hailed as a forgotten masterpiece when it was loving restored and reissued in 2006, nearly forty years after its initial release in 1969.  I haven't run into many films I've thought were in need of a reevaluation myself until now.

The thing is, though, WWII film "Tora! Tora! Tora!" isn't an especially maligned film, and has gotten a fair amount of attention over the years.  True, Roger Ebert did give it one star and called it "one of the deadest, dullest blockbusters ever made," and the critical reception was very cool across the board, but it also nabbed five Academy Award nominations, all for technical categories.  It won the Best Special Effects Oscar for its recreation of the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, and clips were subsequently used in many other war-themed films and television shows in the following years, including Midway (1976) and Australia (2008).  It did decently well at the American box office, and was a smash in Japan.  However, its reputation in subsequent years has been decidedly mixed, and it never seems to come up in discussions of the great war films, which I'm convinced that this is.  

I think it comes down to "Tora! Tora! Tora!" not meeting certain preconceptions.  Firstly, it's an effects spectacular, produced by 20th Century Fox's legendary Darryl F. Zanuck's.  What made headlines were the cost of the picture, which was in excess of $25 million, and its three year productions schedule.  In order to tell the story of the Pearl Harbor attack from both the perspective of the Americans and the Japanese, the film was essentially two different productions, one American and one Japanese, each with their own contributing writers and directors.  The American director was Richard Fleischer, best known for adventure films like "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" and "Fantastic Voyage."  The Japanese director was initially going to be Akira Kurosawa, but he dropped out of the project, and the baton was passed to Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasaku.  Fukusaku, thirty years later, would cap off his long career by directing the two "Battle Royale" movies.

The trouble is, the film doesn't behave like any sort of blockbuster action picture of its era.  The nearly three hour running time is largely devoted to the political and military maneuvering that lead to the attack, with special emphasis on how the American government anticipated Pearl Harbor, but were tripped up by communication failures with the military.  There are a few familiar faces in the cast, but no characters who are really explored in any depth, no foregrounded melodrama to follow as the historical events unfold.  Instead, we largely see scenes of bureaucracy on both sides, as decisions large and small are made in the final fateful hours.  The tension doesn't really start rising until the second half, after well over an hour of sitting in on dramatized meetings and conferences with characters who are introduced with captions to help us keep them all straight.

The low-key docu-drama approach worked for me, however, and I appreciated the lack of the usual outsized melodrama and patriotic posturing.  And there are memorable personal moments of human drama scattered throughout the film: a white US soldier in Hawaii giving an Asian courier a suspicious look, efforts to track down an officer being stymied because he's gone horseback riding, and Japanese pilots enjoying the music they've picked up from Hawaiian transmissions.  It's remarkable how even-handed the film is throughout, especially as the film was made less than thirty years after the events depicted.  It's no wonder that it was such a hit in Japan, because the Japanese characters are allowed to appear downright heroic at times, and it's tempting to want to cheer for them as they pull off their raid on the Americans.    

And what an air raid.  The final forty minutes of "Tora! Tora! Tora!" can still be held up as one of the greatest action sequences ever captured on film.  The size and the scale of the production are still thrilling to see, with multiple scenes of aerial dogfights, bombing runs, and massive scale destruction of acres of expensive military hardware and property.  Famously, one of the stunts that went disastrously wrong was caught on film and included in the final film as part of the cinematic carnage.  Even forty-five years later, it's still impressive to take in.  I can't speak much to the accuracy of the events, but I do find it heartening that some of the movie's biggest fans are military enthusiasts.

I was so impressed after an initial viewing, I immediately started looking into why the film hasn't had the kind of attention that I'd expect.  People do regard it fondly, but it's seen as a popular success rather than a critical one.  The reviews of the day called it tedious and dry, a history lecture grafted to an exercise in expensive pyrotechnics.  I however, think it's one of the best war films of its era, and it holds up incredibly well today.

So, films nerds, it seems I've finally found it - an underrated film that really needs a second look.  

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