Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo


One of the very best WWII movies, made during wartime. Pretty much everything about the Doolittle raid on Japan is accurate, and a lot of the nuts and bolts are shown, which makes it all the more realistic. They of course had actual B-25 Mitchell bombers to work with, and though the Navy couldn’t loan them a carrier, the set designers and SFX people made those scenes convincing, too. The very idea of putting 16 medium bombers on a carrier deck and having them take off in only 500 feet was pretty insane, but they made it work and this movie shows how. It shows the attack, and the aftermath, when all 16 ships had to be crashed or abandoned in the air because an early launch meant they didn’t have enough fuel to reach their intended landing fields in China. Ordinarily, the loss of 100% of attacking aircraft would be seen as a disaster (and Doolittle expected to be court-martialed when he returned), and in fact very little damage was done to Japan, except psychologically. An entire carrier battle group was recalled to guard the Home Islands. This may very well have been critical in the Battle of Midway, the turning point of the war in the Pacific. And the effect of the news on the home front was electrifying. Doolittle and the men who made their way home were hailed as heroes. As well they should have been.

One point not covered, probably because the extent of the atrocity was not known in 1944, was the terrible retribution visited on the Chinese for helping the crews escape. About 250,000 Chinese civilians were killed in reprisals by the barbarians of the Japanese army. This is probably something the Japanese are still denying, like the Rape of Nanking.

As is standard in these films, our airmen are shown as just a group of big, fun-loving and rather childish boys. Okay, audiences back then were far from ready to hear our soldiers say “motherfucker” as they do in the recent HBO series “The Pacific,” and they certainly didn’t want to see Americans so scared they were shitting their drawers, and suffering mental breakdowns. That’s how it really was, but hey, I wouldn’t have wanted to see that while the war was still going on, either. There is one scene where Robert Mitchum and Van Johnson share a ruminative moment where they admit they don’t actually hate Japs, and discuss the morality of dropping bombs on them, certainly killing civilians. That struck me as pretty progressive for 1944.

My biggest continuing objection to war films of this period is an odd one, and that is the portrayal of southerners. The stock “man of the south” just cain’t stop atalkin’ about dear old Dixie, and he always does it in a truly awful “southern” accent. Couldn’t they find anybody in Hollywood who could speak with an authentic drawl? Maybe somebody who actually grew up there? It just hurts my ears. I suppose people from da Bronx or Brooklyn feel the same way about those stock characters. The actors and directors of the time seemed to feel that a broad accent was all the characterization you needed.