Wednesday, 4 September 2019

The World War II Blogathon: «Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo» (1944)

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) begins in early 1942, when Lt. Col. James Doolittle (Spencer Tracy) calls for volunteers for a top-secret Army Air Force mission, following the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. One of the many men to offer his services is pilot Lt. Ted Lawson (Van Johnson), who is sent for training at Eglin Field in Florida, along with his B-25 Mitchell crew, including gunner Cpl. David Thatcher (Robert Walker) and navigator Lt. Charles McClure (Don DeFore). During the first of many briefings, Doolittle informs the men that the mission will be tough and dangerous, and encourages anyone with doubts to drop out. Ted's friend and fellow pilot Lt. Bob Gray (Robert Mitchum) suggests that he withdraw from the mission, since he recently got married, but Ted remains determined to go through with it.

Once their training ends, the men are sent to San Francisco, where the B-25 Mitchells are loaded onto the USS Hornet, a Navy aircraft carrier. Doolittle finally reveals to the men that they will be conducting the first ever bombing mission on Japan and that the planes are to take off from the deck of the carrier. As the Hornet approaches the Japanese coast, it is spotted by the enemy, forcing the mission to start earlier than initally planed. Ted's aircraft, «The Ruptured Duck», has trouble with the left engine, but manages to complete the task of dropping its bombs over Tokyo, before heading for the free Chinese coast for regrouping. As they are flying there, however, a storm causes the plane to crash-land, resulting in a badly-injured crew. Soon after, sympathetic Chinese villagers carry the Americans to safety and they are then reunited with another crew at the local hospital. Ted is told that his leg, which developed gangrene from being severely cut in the crash, must be amputated. Later, having recovered enough to be moved, Ted is evacuated to Chungking, before returning to the U.S. with his men. Ted's pregnant wife, Ellen (Phyllis Thaxter), receives phone call from Doolittle, now hailed as a hero, and reunites with her husband at the hospital.

Lt. Ted Lawson: We'll be back. Maybe not us ourselves, but a lotta guys like us,
and I'd like to be with them. You're our kind of people.

The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 came as a profound shock to the American people and led the U.S. to effectively enter World War II. By early 1942, the United States had surrendered major areas of the Philippines, lost Guam, admitted defeat at Wake Island and was preparing for the worst in Hawaii and on the West Coast. American air, land and sea forces could not stop the Japanese, and the nation seemed paralyzed by the prospects of major theatre campaigns from Europe to the Pacific. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had revived the American people's spirit and lifted the nation out of economic depression, now had to regain the public's confidence to overcome the recent string of military disasters. The primary mission was to avenge Pearl Harbor and boost the American morale by bombing Japan as soon as possible.

On January 2, 1942, Lt. Col. James H. Doolittle was assigned to Army Air Forces Headquarters to plan and lead the first retaliatory air raid on Japanese homeland following the strike on Pearl Harbor. Doolittle assembled 16 volunteer flight crews, which would take off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet aboard B-25 medium bombers and target the cities of Tokyo, Kobe, Yokohama, Osaka and Nagoya. The concept for the attack had come from Navy Captain Francis S. Low, who had heard during a planning conference about using aircraft carriers to transport land-based planes to North Africa. The aircraft would fly off the carrier once they were in range of a friendly airfield. Low thought American forces could exploit this idea, but instead of delivering planes they would be used to attack Japan. Government, Army and Navy worked together to ensure the success of the mission.

B-25 Mitchells aboard the USS Hornet (April 1942)
On March 1, the B-25 crews flew to Eglin Field, Florida to received intensive training in simulated carrier deck take-offs, low-level and night flying, low-altitude bombing and over water navigation. Three weeks later, they proceeded to California for inspection at the Sacramento Air Depot, followed by a short final flight to Naval Air Station Alameda to be loaded onto USS Hornet. The carrier and her escorts, collectively called Task Force 18, got underway from San Francisco Bay in the morning of April 2.

Two weeks later, on April 18, while the task force was still about 650 nautical miles (1,200 km) from the coast, it was sighted by a Japanese patrol boat, which radioed an attack warning to the mainland. After the boat was sunk by gunfire from USS Nashville, one of Hornet's escorts, Doolittle decided to launch the B-25s immediately. Although they encountered antiaircraft fire and a few enemy fighters over Japan, no B-25 was shot down and they all bombed their targets. Fifteen of the planes then proceeded to their recovery airfields in China, while one crew chose to head instead to the Soviet Union due to low fuel. 

Lt. Col. Doolittle (middle) with members of his flight crew
and Chinese officials in China after the raid
The raiders faced unforeseen challenges during their flight to China it was nighttime, the weather was stormy and they were unable to locate their landing fields. After about 12 hours in the air, the fuel was running low and there was no real possibility of a safe landing. In the end, all 15 crews managed to reach the Chinese coast by either crash-landing or bailing out. Most men were helped through the Japanese lines by Chinese civilians and soldiers, but others were not so fortunate: seven crew members lost their lives, four as a result of being captured and tortured by the Japanese and three due to a plane crash or while parachuting.

Upon his return to the United States, Doolittle was hailed as a hero and received the Medal of Honor from President Roosevelt at the White House. Although the damage done was minor, the raid showed the Japanese that their homeland was vulnerable to air attack and forced to withdraw from several Pacific war zones. Most significantly, Japanese commanders considered the raid deeply embarrassing and their attempt to strenghten their defensive position in the South Pacific led directly to the decisive American victory at the Battle of Midway in June 1942.

One of the pilots that took part in the Doolittle Raid was Lt. Ted Lawson, who flew an aircraft nicknamed «The Ruptured Duck». Lawson and his crew crashed their plane off the coast of the small island of Nantien when its engines failed while trying to land on the beach during the storm. All five crew members survived the crash; however, four received serious injuries. Lawson was thrown through the windscreen of the bomber, suffering severe facial injuries, a compound fracture of the left leg and a lacerated left bicep. After he was transported to safety by friendly Chinese, his infected leg had to be amputated. He was eventually repatriated back to the United States, where he had to undergo a second amputation of his leg and reconstruction of his lower face. During his recuperation, Lawson was made a Captain in accordance with Doolitte's recommendation that all raiders be promoted one grade. Doolittle himself was promoted two grades to Brigadier General.

The crew of «The Ruptured Duck» in April 1942
(Lawson is second from left)
In January 1943, Lawson and newspaper columnist Bob Considine decided to write a book about the mission, entitled Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. The entire story was worked out in about a week, although publishing approval was not given until April, when the War Department released information about the raid to the general public. The memoir was initially serialized in six issues by Collier's magazine, between May and June, before being published in hardback «wartime book» format by Random House later that year.

Soon after the serialization of Thirty Second Over Tokyo, Lawson made contact with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer producer Sam Zimbalist about a possible screen adaptation of the story. Like most Hollywood studios during wartime, MGM was doing its part by making pictures about the major campaigns. For instance, Bataan (1943) depicted the defense of the eponymous peninsula by American forces in the Philippines by the invading Japanese. The Doolittle Raid had been an important morale boost for the nation, so Zimbalist immediately worked out a deal to purchase the film rights from Lawson for $100,000.

To pen the script for Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, MGM hired Dalton Trumbo, who had just written another World War II drama, A Guy Named Joe (1943), starring Spencer Tray, Irene Dunne and Van Johnson. Trumbo worked closely with Lawson to make his characters and the details of their mission as accurate as possible. He was also allowed to study the briefing papers from the training sessions, fly on a B-25 and examine every aspect of the plane, as well as every crewman's job on it. He wanted Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo to be «a picture which every service man will recognize as authentic which every service man will find reassuring, even comforting and which every American will view with a sense of pride and heightened determination.»

Dalton Trumbo (far left) with Captain Ted
Lawson (with cane) in 1943
Trumbo finished his script in mid-June 1943 and it was then sent to the Production Code Administration (PCA) and the Office of War Information (OWI). Both gave their approval; the OWI was particularly pleased with Trumbo's depiction of the «genuine cooperation and friendship» between the American raiders and the Chinese and recommended the film for «special distribution in liberated areas.»

For its part, the War Department generally approved of the script, but expressed its desire that «this picture will result not in the glorification of one officer, but of the heroic exploits of the Army Air Force as a whole.» A political matter also worried the War Department it had been Communist Chinese guerillas who carried the airmen to safety. As such, MGM was warned of the possible «damaging repercussions» if Thirty Second Over Tokyo emphasized that China as a nation was assisting American flyers out of enemy-occuppied territory. «That angle should be reduced to a minimum.» In order words, the War Department wanted to ensure that the Chinese rescuers were «non-partisans, humanitarian-inspired individuals.»

Spencer Tracy, Phyllis Thaxter and Van Johnson in
a publicity still for Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
Academy Award winner Spencer Tracy was offered the role of Doolittle, but he initially refused, as he did not want to be typecast as an heroic wartime figure. MGM briefly considered replacing him with Brian Donlevy, but Tracy finally accepted the part when his friend Van Johnson was cast as Lawson. With his surge of popularity following the release of A Guy Named Joe, MGM decided that Johnson was ready for the demanding lead in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo.

At the urging of his agent, who was a friend of director Mervyn LeRoy, newcomer Robert Mitchum was assigned to the role of Lt. Bob Gray. Mitchum claimed he tested thirty times for the part. At one point, LeRoy reportedly said, «You're either the best actor I've ever seen or the worst.» A year later, Mitchum became a bonafide star at RKO, receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in the critically acclaimed WWII drama The Story of G.I. Joe (1945).

Robert Walker, who had starred in Bataan, was cast as Lawson's flight engineer and turret gunner David Thatcher. Walker's charming demeanor and boyish good looks had made him one of the most popular young actors in Hollywood during the war years. Don DeFore, another alumn of A Guy Named Joe, was given the role of Lt. Charles McClure, navigator on «The Ruptured Duck.» Lawson's wife, Ellen, was played by Phyllis Thaxter, in her motion picture debut. She later reunited with Mitchum in the western Blood on the Moon (1948).

Spencer Tracy (as Doolittle) with the crew
of «The Ruptured Duck»
Production on Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo began in early February 1944. LeRoy wanted authentic backgrounds, so he arranged to shoot much of the film at Eglin Field, Florida, where Doolittle had trained his raiders for the mission. The Army offered MGM full cooperation and loaned the studio 12 B-25s for the production, supplying men to fly them as well. General Hap Arnolds, Doolittle and Lawson all served as technical advisers throughout filming. 

Much of the cast and crew arrived in Florida by train and were housed in the utilitarian barracks at Eglin Field. They took their meals from the mess line, showered communally and basically enjoyed all the perks of the average service men. During location shooting, many of the young actors bonded over their boredom and the tough living conditions. They also attracted the anger of some of the enlisted men, who resented them for not being in the service. As drinking and the late night parties increased, so did clashes between the fake soldiers and the real ones. Apparently, at one point, Mitchum gave a brutal beating to a drunken sergeant who was verbally abusing Walker.

Filming Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo 
in the MGM water tank
The company eventually returned to California and resumed filming at MGM's Culver City studios. Because the Navy could not supply an actual aircraft carrier for the shoot, a simulation of the USS Hornet's flight deck was built on Stage 15. The set was large enough to hold four B-25s. The take-off scenes were created by building a scaled-down version of the deck, which was then put up in the studio's water tank. The special effects team could not generate waves large enough to model, so the carrier was attached to a hydraulic system that duplicated its movement at sea while pumps pushed water past it. Miniature planes attached to piano wire were moved in synchronized patterns to replicate the take-offs. In post-production, this was combined with newsreel footage from the actual raid.

San Francisco and Oakland filled in for Japan in some aerial shots. The special effects team recreated the bombing by using footage from a fire in an oil refinery in East Oakland. The aerial approach to Tokyo was filmed by mounting cameras on the noses of several B-25s flownn over the Pacific Ocean towards Los Angeles. Additionally, MGM's back lot served for the sequences in China, with the buildings, towering gates and a segment of the Great Wall that Cedric Gibbons had designed for The Good Earth (1937) substituting for the Japanese-controlled Chinese mainland.

Back in March 1943, Johnson had been involved in a serious car accident while driving to the MGM lot for a special screening of Keeper of the Flame (1943). Besides lacerating his face, neck and forehead, the crash damaged his skull so severely that doctors had to insert a metal plate in his head. He was left with a number of scars that plastic surgery of the time could not completely correct or conceal. Afterwards, he had to use heavy make-up to cover his forehead scars. For Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, this was not needed. Since images of the wounded Lawson were reminiscent of the actor's own brush with death, make-up artists simply let Johnson's real scars show rather than adding fake ones, ultimately enhancing the film's realism. 

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo had its world premiere in New York and Chungking, China on November 15, 1944. The film was an immediate critical and commercial success. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times deemed it «a worthy example» of the blending of the real and the imagined in a war film an explicit and clean telling of a true a story and «a warm romance.» The reviewer for the Hollywood Reporter called it «more than one of the greatest war pictures ever made ... [I]t is an all time winner. It has everything.» It was selected as LIFE's movie of the week and ended up winning the Oscar for Best Special Effects, in addition to a nomination for Best Cinematography (Black & White).


This post is my entry for The World War II Blogathon hosted by Cinema Essentials and Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. To view all entries, click the links below.

DAY 1 ¦ DAY 2 ¦ DAY 3



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SOURCES:
Dalton Trumbo: Blacklisted Hollywood Radical by Larry Ceplair and Christopher Trumbo (University Press of Kentucky, 2015)
Robert Mitchum: «Baby I Don't Care» by Lee Server (St. Martin's Griffin, 2002)
The Doolittle Raid 1942: America's first strike back at Japan by Clayton K. S. Chun (Osprey Publishing, 2006)
Van Johnson: MGM's Golden Boy by Ronald L. Davis (University Press of Mississippi, 2001)
TCM's articles on Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
TCM's notes on Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo