The background and surprise attack (75 years ago today) on Pearl Harbor


Darryl F. Zanuck, who ran 20th Century Fox for decades, was very pleased with the bix-office success ot the 1962 multi-star “The Longest Day,” a recreation of the 6 June 1944 Allied landings in Normandy. That success that showed both sides encouraged his idea to show the Pearl Harbor surprise attack that occurred 75 years ago today in a co-production with the Toei Company in Japan. The US sequences  of “Tora! Tora! Tora!” were directed by Richard Fleischer (whom I consider a hack, director of “Dr. Doolittle,” “Soylent Green,” “Mandigo,” etc., though he had also helmsed “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and “Fantastic Voyage”). The great master of Japanese directors, Kurosawa Akira, was originally hired to direct the Japanese parts and worked with Kurosawa’s frequent collaborators Oguni Hideo (Ran, Seven Samurai et al.) and Kikushima Ryûzô (Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, High and Low) on the screenplay.

Oddly, Masuda Toshio (Rusty Knife, Zoku ningen kakume), who had trained as a kamikaze pilot, directed the Japanese dramatic sections, while the Japanese action sections were directed by Fukasaku Kinji (Under the Flag of the Rising Sun,  Battles Without Honor & Humanity, Battle Royale). (Fleischer did both for the American parts.)

The Zanucks (Darryl’s son Richard was head of production for Fox) did not attempt to match the starpower of “The Longest Day” (the cast of which included Richard Burton, Henry Fonda, and John Wayne), though using some recognizable supporting actors (Jason Robards, Martin Balsam, E.G. Marshall) with impressive Yamamura Sô (Tokyo Story, The Human Condition) as Admiral Yamamoto and Tamura Takahiro (Empire of Passion, My Son! My Son!) as the Japanese ace pilot/ squad leader.

The movie starts in 1939, when Franklin Roosevelt’s administration placed on embargo on raw materials going to Japan (while also trying to aid the hopelessly corrupt and incompetent resistance to Japanese aggression by Chiang Kaishek’s Republic of China army). It raises the possibility that the alliance (the Axis with Nazi Germy and Fascist Italy) was at least in part defensive and that the embargo was an act of war.

The American populace was surprised and shocked (and them mobilized) by the surprise attack on the US fleet in Pearl Harbor, but intelligence officers (and the White House?) had broken the Japanese code and knew of the movement of many Japanese ships eastward. (The instructions to Japanese diplomats in D.C. is not forwarded to the president, though U.S. Army Col. Bratton [E.G. Marshall] correctly infers that an attack is about to occur.) This information was not shared with the military commanders in Hawai’i. They also refused to believe the evidence of both radar and spotters’ report of incoming aircraft.


The local (Honolulu) commanders, Admiral Kimmel (Martin Balsam) and General Short (Jason Robards), were scapegoated for their failures to anticipate and then to comprehend the attack. I think that racism played a part in refusing to believe the Japanese could/would launch an attack. It certainly was central to Lt. Gen. Short’s decision to get all the US planes out on the runways, where they were mostly destroyed (six managed to take off and shoot back a bit). It was just dumb luck for the Americans that the main target, three US aircraft carriers, were not in Pearl Harbor. Admiral Yamamoto is dismayed by this news, even along with the news of seven battleships in Pearl Harbor being sunk or badly damaged, and most of the US aircraft there being destroyed on the ground. He had been reluctant to start a war, not believing Japan could win a protracted war with the US. His view was encapsulated in a statement he may not have made that was included in the movie: “I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve.” (BTW, the Japanese still did not know their code had been broken when Yamamoto was shot down 18 April 1943 with the US monitors knowing his flight plan.)


There are some dramas of bureaucratic indecision (and racism) in the US representations, and discipline (with muted optimism) in the Japanese preparing the attack. A lack of decoders with security clearance at the Japanese embassy in Washington resulted in the ultimatum to be presented to Secretary of State Cordell Hull (George McReady) arriving after he already knew of the attack (i.e., without the declaration of war that the Japanese intended to deliver slightly before the attack), so that the bureaucratic failures were not only American ones.

Though there was some utilization of slightly anachronistic hardware, the film is historically accurate in its portrayal of the background of the attack, and before CGI, has Oscar-winning special effects (editing, sound, cinematography, and art direction were also nominated). It would be faint praise to say that “Tora!” is superior to “Pearl Harbor” (2001). I think it is a worthy successor to “The Longest Day” and a primer for what happened before and after the message tht is the title was delivered (“tora” means tiger, but in this instance was an acronym for totsugeki raigeki (lightning attack).

Reportedly, the $25 million cost of making the movie was more than the cost of the attack (in constant dollars?). Though not a blockbuster (#9 in the US box office for 1970), the movie grossed nearly $30 million in its US theatrical release and was a box office success in Japan (and continues to make money on disc).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray


2 thoughts on “The background and surprise attack (75 years ago today) on Pearl Harbor”

  1. I tried to focus on the history of the movie rather than the history of the event. The movie seems to fit with reducing the culpability of Kimmel and Short, about which you just posted. Lining up the planes like a shooting gallery and ignoring the radar and then lookout spotting of oncoming planes count in my book, though not sharing the decoded Japanese messages with them is unconscionable and major exculpation for the commanders on Oahu.


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