One of the best movies ever made about WWII, Mervyn LeRoy’s Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) is an exhilarating propaganda film, its banners unfurled and over-the-top flag waving an intoxicating blend of ‘get up and go’ and rousing cheer for the G.I.’s who were in the thick of things. The film stars resident MGM pin up, Van Johnson as Lt. Ted Lawson – a cocky, but congenial, flyer who finds himself slated for the most aggressive bombing raid on the enemy.
In the meantime, Ted’s wife – the ultimate all-American war bride, Ellen (Phillis Thaxter) has just announced that she’s going to have his baby. Their relationship is the stuff of idyllic optimism in the face of impending disaster. At one point, Ted tells Ellen, “How’d you get to be so cute?” to which she replies, “I had to be, if I was going to get me such a good looking fella!” The magic of it all is that there is genuineness to this seemingly 'aw shucks' repartee that remains totally engaging and entirely believable.
However, before this wholesome romance can lead to…well, more passionate pursuits, Ted is drafted into the service of Gen. James Doolittle (Spencer Tracy), along with his buddies, Lt. Bob Gray (Robert Mitchum), Cpl. David Thatcher (Robert Walker) and Lt. Dean Davenport (Tim Murdock). Together, they fly their plane into enemy territory, despite the fact that Ted has detected a rather ominous propeller problem just before take off. After a successful bombing raid on Tokyo munitions plants (MGM’s visual effects department managing to generate some fairly impressive master shots of total decimation) Ted’s left blade gives out over open water and his plane crashes.
The rest of the film is a journey through crisis as Ted and his troop are rescued and hidden in a Chinese hospital, but perpetually threatened with discovery from marauding Japanese forces at any moment. Even more debilitating, Ted must face the fact that his left leg – injured in the initial crash – has to be amputated without the benefit of anesthetic in order to save his life.
Based on real life incidents penned by the real Ted Lawson, and amiably scripted by Dalton Trumbo, the film is a powder keg of exciting moments and impressive visuals. The one note of disappointment (and it is a minor one) stems from Spencer Tracy having been given the rather thankless duty of a near cameo performance - providing details to his troops but never partaking in their mission. However, Tracy’s final oration to Ellen is worthy of the actor’s prowess. In the final analysis, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo performs a most impressive hat trick: it manages to take thirty seconds and transform it into nearly two hours of high stakes action and a palpably engaging 'four hanky' melodrama.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is fairly impressive – though not without its flaws. The gray scale exhibits impressive tonality – with solid detail. The image is infrequently soft and age related artifacts are present. Contrast levels are quite good. Blacks, rich and solid. Whites, fairly clean. Film grain is occasionally more gritty than film-like. The audio is mono but adequately represented. Extras are limited to vintage short subjects and the film’s theatrical trailer. Recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)