FF71 - Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo

Intro by Ben Harrison

After Pearl Harbor the United States plunged itself into World War II on fronts all over the world, but that precipitating event seemed to demand a response, something our country could do specifically to hit back at the Japanese after their surprise attack. For many people, their knowledge of what the U.S. did for retribution comes from a sequence toward the end of Pearl Harbor: A Michael Bay Film, and that is unfortunate because the story of the Doolittle Raid as we observed then isn't only deserving of its own film, it is rightly deserving of many films. All of them are already on the Friendly Fire list of movies, Don't at me!

It is 131 days after the attacks on Pearl Harbor and it is easy to forget that the allies weren't always the favourites to win this thing. Morale is low and what is needed is the strategic equivalent of a moonshot: Can bombers take off from an aircraft carrier? This film interrogates the two elements of Jimmy Doolittle's plan, whether or not the bombers can fly off the aircraft carriers and who would volunteer for such a mission, knowing the odds are against them, the situation is grim, and that they are not going to be turning their bombers around at the end of this and landing on the aircraft carriers. They are going to be landing in China.

Ted Lawson is our proxy and the film is based on his book. We live the experience through his divided attention, through his relationship with his pregnant wife, and with the training and the mission itself, and in both stories the subtext is ”sacrifice”. Heroism is a tricky thing to depict. Lawson and the rest haven't volunteered for the mission because of ego, they are just normal guys with families and hometowns they miss. They seem to have more affection for their planes than anything else and they are not even sore at their enemy.

I like that the film gives you exactly what is in the title. The mission itself consumes relatively little of the total runtime. Instead we grow to know and admire Doolittle and his pilots and their training and in the aftermath of their mission the tone goes grim right through until the end. They could quit it anytime before the mission or after. The rescue of the Doolittle raiders as complex and despairing, involving the help of Chinese villagers, a couple of British expats and a lot of luck. The scenes in China especially depict the differences in cultures and values. Very gently you brace for a Jerry Lewis moment, but thankfully one never comes. It is dark, and it is that darkness that saves this film from feeling like total propaganda.

Rather than gloss over the aftermath of the mission and the myriad dangers that the crews face navigating China and trying to get home, the story of the Doolittle Raiders inspires not only because the mission is a success, but because not everyone comes home in one piece, and it is not just physical pain either. Ted Lawson is not the man he was before the mission in a lot of ways. It may be the Chinese who saved him from the wreckage of his plane, but it is thoughts of his wife Ellen that saves his life in the end, and maybe that is the most significant point of this film and Lawson are trying to share.

All of this comes in a film that was released to American audiences during the war. The influence of the Hays Code is here, sure! Self-mythologizing of the author of the book is here, sure! But this is a pretty complex movie that treats the audience like adults and that is a really interesting thing to experience, given the context. On today's Friendly Fire we had to be good if we were going to get such a good looking listener as we discussed the 1944 Doolittle Raid film 30 Seconds Over Tokyo.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License