Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
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Long before Saving Private Ryan (1998) amazed audiences with its brutal portrayal of war, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) was the special effects blockbuster which brought home the experiences of World War II for the American public.
Based on the memoirs of Captain Ted Lawson, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is a documentary style re-creation of the first American strike on Japan in retaliation for the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Following Capt. Lawson, played by Van Johnson in his first major screen role, we watch the flight team, which includes Spencer Tracy as Col. James Doolittle, and Robert Mitchum in his last minor role as Bob Gray, prepare for their dangerous mission. Because island bases near the target were unavailable, twin-engine bombers, in a historic first, had to take off from the deck of an aircraft carrier. When a storm forces the mission to depart ahead of schedule, an unpredictable situation occurs after Capt. Lawson and his crew complete their mission. They are forced to crash land in Mainland China where they become dependent on Chinese guerillas to smuggle them to safety.
Though the actual mission was planned as a publicity stunt rather than a military maneuver, MGM felt that a picture based on the dramatic events of the bombing would contribute to public morale. Seizing on the opportunity for high profile propaganda, the War Department cooperated within the limits of security, providing twelve B-25 bombers along with pilots to fly them. Because an aircraft carrier could not be loaned to the production, MGM's head of Special Effects, Buddy Gillespie, was called in to reconstruct the dramatic launch of the bombers. Employing miniatures built on a scale of one inch to one foot, Gillespie built a 60-foot version of the aircraft carrier Hornet, and launched it in the studio's 300 square foot water tank. Miniature bombers attached to an overhead trolley with piano wire were then shot, and the photography combined with newsreel footage. The result was a breathtaking sequence that could have been lifted directly from an actual Air Force documentary.
Refreshingly free of contrived heroics and forced wisecracks, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo was a huge critical and commercial success when it opened for the first time in 1944. Thrilling audiences to the tune of $4.5 million - a huge figure at that time - 'and garnering an Oscar for Best Special Effects, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo was labeled by Newsweek Magazine as "one of the finest war movies to date," and it's just as enjoyable today.
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Producer: Sam Zimbalist
Screenplay: Dalton Trumbo
Cinematography: Harold Rosson, Robert Surtees
Editor: Frank Sullivan
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse
Music: Herbert Stothart
Cast: Van Johnson (Lt. Ted Lawson), Robert Walker (Corporal David Thatcher), Tim Murdock (Lt. Dean Davenport), Don DeFore (Lt. Charles McClure), Phyllis Thaxter (Ellen Lawson).
BW-139m. Close captioning. Descriptive Video.
by Bill Goodman