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Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: Dalton Trumbo, Ted W. Lawson
Producer: Sam Zimbalist
Cast: Spencer Tracy, Van Johnson, Robert Walker, Tim Murdock, Don DeFore
Genre: Drama, War

Running Time: 138
Aspect Ratio:  1.37:1 (NTSC Flat Full Frame)
Sound: Dolby 2.0 Mono
Subtitles: English, French
Features: Black and White
Studio:  MGM (Video & DVD) DVD Region:  1 NR
DVD Release:  May 1999 Discs:  1 (Cloud) []
Reviews:  Much more realistic than Air Force yet still wearing its wartime concerns and prejudices on its sleeve, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is one of the best remembered war films. The script is partly the work of the soon to be blacklisted Dalton Trumbo, whose main 'subversive' contribution is to suggest that American fighting men were idealists (not that!) hoping that their efforts would bring about a better world. As they prepare for a possible suicide mission, the flyers played by Van Johnson (in perhaps his best role) and newcomer Robert Mitchum express the hope that their kids will grow up free of war's chaos. Then again, the wartime mindset has its limits. When Mitchum turns wistful, he stares out at the ocean and says, "I don't hate Japs. I don't like 'em, but I don't hate 'em -- yet." 1944 America is far from ready to forgive and forget.

Flying Lt. Ted Lawson (Van Johnson) is one of many Army Air Corps hotshots that volunteer for an unknown perilous mission under Colonel James Doolittle (Spencer Tracy). Ted trains at a secret Florida base and does not drop out even after he learns his wife Ellen (Phyllis Thaxter) is pregnant. As soon as the aircraft carrier Hornet puts out to sea with their B-25 bomber planes on board, the men are told that they are to take part in a daring mission to bomb Tokyo, only a few months after the debacle at Pearl Harbor.
Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is the wartime equivalent of a caper film, a raid planned and carried out in secret by determined specialists. As in a caper, the mission goes wrong almost from the start and our resourceful airmen must improvise 'on the fly.' Spencer Tracy's tough-guy Jimmy Doolittle stands before his men and announces that anybody averse to bombing civilians will be excused without dishonor. Who would dream of doing such a thing? A flyer scrubbed for a simple technicality is crestfallen not to be allowed to take part in the raid. Our 'hero' lies to his superiors about the questionable condition of his airplane, fearful that he he'll be scrubbed too. That's the appeal of a male group banding together to do a dangerous job .... men use such challenges to define themselves.

The film's account of the raid is fairly accurate, especially when compared to the bald falsehoods floated in pictures like Air Force and Wake Island. Only a few issues are stretched. It doesn't seem likely that the flyers' wives would be allowed to follow them from camp to camp for such a secret mission (but it may be true in this case; I haven't read the book). Nowhere is the raid acknowledged as a morale-boosting stunt to stave off American despair in a year the top brass knew would be mainly a bunch of bad headlines. Sixteen light B-25 bombers carry only a few tons of bombs, and the actual damage done to Japanese targets isn't all that significant. Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo shows single bombs blowing entire factories sky high and lighting half a city on fire, a filmic exaggeration that gives the raid a delayed morale kick, two years later. To its credit, the movie avoids the outright hokum of many other films made during the war. The pilots do not repel fantasy attacks by Zero fighters. When they reach China, they don't find a beautiful Eurasian princess in need of passionate rescue. 2

Air Force big cheese Hap Arnold and raid leader Jimmy Doolittle were advisors on the film, which makes it all the more pleasing that the fliers are shown as cocky individuals and not representatives of a 'perfect' Army Air Corps. Yes, we see plenty of glad-handing demonstrating that the Army and Navy are all buddies where it counts. But our hero has a clever plan to smuggle cartons of cigarettes along in his bomber, and use the profits to offset his gambling losses. Compare that to Gus Grissom 'screwing the pooch' when he gets caught with his pockets full of souvenir toys after his Mercury mission. Perhaps Tokyo's best timed moment is on the aircraft carrier when Lawson and a clerk are caught off-guard by an unplanned contact with the enemy. They stare at each other in disbelief before bolting to their battle stations. Out of bland normalcy, the big raid has begun!

The raid is meticulously filmed, and because earlier scenes show actual aircraft doing wild short-hop takeoffs, A. Arnold Gillespie's effects fool many into thinking they're looking at real planes and exploding factories instead of miniatures. 1 Some enormous Tokyo-scape models are only seen for a second or two. Mattes turn the Chinese coast into a rather optimized fairytale landscape, but the realism of the flight and the crash is commendable.

The movie is handsomely cast, with Van Johnson again representing America's best. Barely seen in The Human Comedy, Robert Mitchum makes a solid impression as a straight-talking westerner, the kind of dependable buddy anybody would want on their side. Crinkly-eyed Phyllis Thaxter is the slightly glamorized dream wife, the kind every soldier wanted to settle down with, after a few weeks with Rita Hayworth, of course. Thaxter's blonde gal friend is Jacqueline White, who later appeared in Richard Fleischer's film noir The Narrow Margin.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo uses the fact that Lt. Lawson lost a leg to provide human interest in the last few reels after the raid ... how will he tell his wife? When Lawson falls asleep during the amputation operation, we see a wickedly creepy flashback of him talking on the phone as a large tree is sawed down in the background! The pilot is determined to hide his missing leg and the hairline scar on his forehead from his wife. In 1944 he surely saw many boys coming back in far worse condition, so his sensitivity about the leg seems ungallant. But those were different times. 3

The DVD of Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo looks great; this title has always fared well on home video. Of the added short subjects (see below) A Lady Fights Back is the most interesting; it anthropomorphoses a civilian ship that sees duty during the war.
--DVD Savant

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