The American Society of Cinematographers

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2012 Television
Presidents Desk
DVD Playback
Fright Night
Tora! Tora! Tora!
ASC Close-Up
Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970)
Blu-ray Edition
2.35:1 (High Definition 1080p)
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, $34.98

More than 30 years before Clint Eastwood told the story of Iwo Jima from both the American and Japanese points of view in Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, Twentieth Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck followed a similar impulse to explore the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Tora! Tora! Tora! was Zanuck’s attempt to recapture the cinematic alchemy of his earlier hit The Longest Day, which explored the events of D-Day from multiple perspectives and met with monumental commercial success. Deciding to apply the same approach to Dec. 7, 1941, Zanuck enlisted producer Elmo Williams to assemble two crews, one American and one Japanese, to tell their respective countries’ sides of the event.

Fox stalwart Richard Fleischer was placed in charge of the American team, and the legendary Akira Kurosawa was assigned to direct the Japanese sequences. Unfortunately, Kurosawa clashed with studio executives and found it impossible to adapt to the American way of making pictures; he was quickly replaced by Kinji Fukasaku, who directed the action scenes, and Toshio Masuda, who helmed the more dialogue-driven character material. The film’s journalistic attention to detail, combined with the sheer scope of the project, quickly led to a ballooning budget, and at a final cost of $25 million, Tora! Tora! Tora! was one of the most expensive films ever made at the time of its release.

Unfortunately, the movie was not particularly successful in America (although it was in Japan), partly because of its lack of star power and partly because of the film’s cerebral perspective on its subject matter. Whereas The Longest Day had a cast that included John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton and numerous other big names, Fleischer chose to populate Tora! Tora! Tora! with accomplished-but-less-popular character actors such as Jason Robards and Martin Balsam. He and his Japanese cohorts also adopted a matter-of-fact, restrained tone that was historically accurate and void of melodrama, an approach that has allowed the film to age well but made it less accessible to a mass audience than the more dramatic take on Pearl Harbor in a film like Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way.

Thus Tora! Tora! Tora! has always been viewed as a bit of a failure, but its pleasures are considerable, particularly for history buffs and aficionados of epic widescreen filmmaking. Given the film’s tumultuous production history, it is probably not surprising that no fewer than four cinematographers are credited: Charles F. Wheeler, ASC; Sinsaku Himeda, Masamichi Satoh and Osami Furuya. A number of esteemed cameramen also worked on the second unit without credit, including Thomas Del Ruth, ASC, and Rexford Metz, ASC. Yet in spite of the chaotic production and the number of chefs in the kitchen, Tora! Tora! Tora! has a remarkably unified look that serves as one of the final examples of the classical Hollywood studio system at its most ambitious, and the exemplary new Blu-ray release offers the perfect opportunity for reappraisal.   

The original DVD release of Tora! Tora! Tora! was riddled with scratches and debris, but Fox has performed massive restorative surgery on this release. The result is a simply flawless disc, with accurate color reproduction and deep blacks as well as a sense of detail and clarity missing from earlier video incarnations. The surround mix is equally impressive, with aggressive separation and robust bass that greatly enhance the impact of the climactic attack sequence; in quieter moments, the dialogue and subtle ambient sounds are perfectly balanced alongside Jerry Goldsmith’s classic score. The Blu-ray contains both the American theatrical edition of the film and a slightly extended Japanese cut. Both are reference-quality transfers.

The supplements have all been seen before, either on the original DVD release or on cable television, but they are uniformly excellent. “History Through the Lens: Tora! Tora! Tora! — A Giant Awakes” is a comprehensive, 90-minute documentary that traces the production history of the film and compares the finished product to the real-life events it depicts; the 20-minute featurette “Day of Infamy” offers additional historical context. Also included are a trailer and a 22-minute episode of AMC’s “Backstory” series that provides an additional take on the movie’s production. Finally, there are 40 minutes of vintage Fox Movietone newsreels about Pearl Harbor and World War II and an extremely informative commentary track by Fleischer and film historian Stuart Galbraith IV. These materials comprise a varied and beautiful Blu-ray package that ranks as one of Fox’s best releases in that format to date.      

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