Thursday, June 3, 2010

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

I've been bamboozled, but I don't mind. I went into my viewing of Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo thinking I was getting a Spencer Tracy film, but that wasn't the case. Tracy’s role amounts to probably less than five minutes of the 138-minute running time. He plays light colonel James Doolittle, the man who orchestrated an extraordinary carrier-based bombing assault on Japan in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Tracy pops up throughout the film, looking stern, giving the occasional order or making a speech. One is left with the impression that his role is bigger, but the movie actually belongs to Van Johnson. Johnson plays Ted Lawson, one of the many B-25 pilots who volunteers for the raid. (Another is played by a young Robert Mitchum)

The film offers a fairly broad survey of the events surrounding the raid, with a focus on Lawson and his fellow crew members — their feelings about the war and their personal lives. The film follows them through training and on to the raid itself, which is vividly realized (Oscar-winning effects) and surprisingly takes place just after the midpoint of the picture. Most of the second half lingers on events that follow, when the bomber crews were obliged to ditch their ships in Chinese territory overrun by Japanese troops. Dalton Trumbo's screenplay takes on a forgivably mild propagandistic tone as everyone aboard Lawson's B-25 is injured and needs to be cared for by Chinese civilians. Most other films of this type would show the crew struggling to escape from behind enemy lines using their nothing more than their wits, and probably nursing minor injuries. Not so here as almost everyone is incapacitated as a result of the forced landing and has to rely solely on the courage of the Chinese citizenry to make it to health and safety.

While the drama plays out half a world away, Johnson's all-American sweetheart of a wife (Phyllis Thaxter) is worried about her man. She is newly pregnant and frightened that Ted might not come back — though like any good war wife she keeps her chin always up and never lets her fears show. She and Johnson are both standouts, and exhibit that sort of “oh gosh!” purity that occasionally comes across as corn, but seems to strike the right chord in a film actually made during the war. I’m a fairly cynical viewer, but Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo evolves gradually into something of a tear jerker, and I was surprised by how the final scene tugged at me. Thaxter and Johnson play it pretty darn good.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)
Grade: B
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
Starring Van Johnson, Phyllis Thaxter, Robert Mitchum, Robert Walker and Spencer Tracy
Released by MGM
Running time: 138 minutes.
Availability: DVD

1 comment:

  1. 30 Seconds is a film made with purpose for a purpose. Spencer Tracy was incredible, as was Van Johnson as with Mitchum as was every single bit part actor in this spectacle of a movie from yesteryear! (or Besteryear) and i was born in the late 60's.

    Thanks to the TCM creator's for doing something that really helps a lot of people out here today, especially millions of our mentor's in our society today...anyone senior.