Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

Directed by Mervyn LeRoy

Cinematography by

Harold Rosson director of photography
Robert Surtees

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is a 1944 American war film released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. It is based on the true story of the Doolittle Raid, America’s first retaliatory air strike against Japan four months after the December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

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This film represents one of four movies made by Hollywood during the 1940s which were about or related to the USA military’s Dolittle Raid on Tokyo, Japan during World War II. The four movies (the first three considered “fictionalized”) are Destination Tokyo (1943); The Purple Heart (1944); Bombardier (1943) and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944), the latter being the most accurate and least fictionalized of the four.

Supreme Courage

2 March 2007 | by windsong05 (United States) – See all my reviews

I am a retired professional pilot with thirty-eight years experience and I can tell you what the Doolittle Raiders did took more raw courage than you can possibly imagine if you are not a pilot yourself. Simply taking off from an aircraft carrier is dangerous enough for a naval aircraft. Now do it with a heavily loaded bomber not designed for the task flown by pilots who had never even been on a carrier before.

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Okay, that’s scary enough, now I’ll try to explain the technical difficulties. Simply stated, to take off a multi engine aircraft at very low airspeed (Necessary for the short length of the deck) is to invite disaster. This is because if you lose an engine as you lift off, the torque from the good engine would roll the aircraft over on its back and into the sea. Now if you survive those rigors you still have to fly to Japan, brave the anti-aircraft fire and fighters, unload your bombs, try to make to China (Low on fuel) find some primitive landing strip at night, which may have fallen into enemy hands by the time you arrive. This movie is but a small tribute to these brave heroes, so please forgive any perceptions of WWII propaganda. Supreme courage? You bet!

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A very accurate account of a major World War II event.

Author: david-valenzuela
9 March 2003

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is the most accurate portrayal of the Doolittle Raid on Japan during World War II. Whenever a movie is made from a book, there are usually changes made for “dramatic effect”. However, there does not seem to be any such changes in this movie, as there is plenty of drama in the original story. Most of the dialogue was taken directly from the book by the same name. There are some scenes that may seem to be “propaganda” or “corny”, but one must remember that in 1943, the atmosphere was different in the United States and the rest of the world.

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All of the characters in the movie were real life people from the Doolittle Raid and from accounts in the book and other sources, they are accurately portrayed by the actors in the movie. The main character, Ted Lawson, was the original technical advisor, but he was replaced by Dean Davenport (Lawson’s co-pilot) after Lawson was re-called to active duty. Most of the flying scenes were done with actual B-25’s accurately marked and even the take-off, which was done on a sound stage, used real aircraft on an aircraft carrier mock-up. The scenes that used miniatures were also well done for the time period (before digital effects). The movie “Pearl Harbor” also has an account of the Doolittle Raid, but it is very, very inaccurate. This movie is worth watching for everyone who has a desire to see historical events and is a must for all aviation and military buffs.

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This is not at all a bad movie. Earlier comments have observed that the first half of the film is mushy and corny, but let us be kind to the demand characteristics of the time. The USA was a lot cornier then than it is now.

And even during that first half, the film is more than watchable. Van Johnson does his all-American boy bit (has he ever done otherwise) and it emerges as an appealing portrait of an ordinary guy, rather than the slavering war monger Ted Lawson could have been turned into. He’s so naive he doesn’t even hate the Japanese. He once had a friend who had a Japanese gardener who seemed like “a nice enough fellow.” His prevailing desire? Not “Kill More Japs,” but, “Gee, I wish this war was over.” Phyllis Thaxter does an adequate job of hiding her anxiety beneath her love for her “fella.”

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The film is long and in many ways more detailed than the book and, hold on, in some ways an improvement. Lawson’s book is short and to the point and dwells on his horrible wound in a way that a wartime movie could not. Mitchum’s role is expanded and made complex by his not-quite-hidden attraction to Lawson’s wife, Ellen. True, sometimes the mushiness goes over the top. The jitterbugging is unnecessary and I don’t suppose we really need the last dance to “Auld Lang Syne,” and yet when one of the wives whispers to her husband (two characters we hardly know), “I love you,” over and over, the sense it evokes isn’t one of bathos but of the anguish of impending loss and the helplessness people feel in the face of it.

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There are small details that seem true. Lawson is called up for his last flight while still hung over and he spills aspirin all over the bathroom floor while getting his gear together. The launch scenes aboard the Hornet are bullet biters. Everything seems barely organized chaos. Wind shrieks, clothing flaps, rain and spray splatter everyone, people shout to make themselves heard over the shattering noise and vibrations of airplane engines, last minute favors are asked and granted, and one never knows if the left engine will quit or whether the dorsal turret will work.

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And there has rarely been a more vivid conveyance of the sense of flight at low level, first over the sea, then over geometrical patterns of agriculture. Everything seems to be moving — and moving too fast, almost, for comprehension. And always the roar and rush of engine and wind. (I don’t know why the list of locations for this film didn’t include the coast of California, where the encounter between bombers and land was shot.) The bombing itself, involving models, is rudimentary by today’s standards. The crash of the B-25 into the massive surf during a rainstorm off the Chinese coast is over in a minute and we see Lawson staggering on the beach, staring at the double tail of the ruined airplane emerging from the ocean, saying mournfully, “I lost my ship. I lost my ship.” (Little of this is in the book.)

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From here on, the film gets a bit confusing. The Chinese are portrayed as sympathetic and as helpful as their conditions allow. The amputation of Lawson’s leg is handled with surprisingly realistic detail. The scene makes it clear that he can feel the first bite of the surgeon’s scalpel despite his spinal. “Boy, when you said you were gonna cut high you weren’t kidding.” It doesn’t get better, either. There’s a silly scene of Lawson hallucinating a phone call to Ellen while he is stranded in timber country and a tree is sawed down and felled outside his window, but the incongruity comes as a relief since it removes us from the source of Lawson’s pain.

Lawson’s return to safety and his reluctance to see his wife again because of his perceived deformit

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