Here’s a movie from World War II: Destination Tokyo (1943). It stars Cary Grant as an American submarine captain tasked with sneaking his vessel in and out of the enemy waters of Tokyo Bay – without getting blown up.
Destination Tokyo is the supposed story of American weather “intelligence” gathering in preparation for the Doolittle Raid. According to historyonfilm.com, the film is entirely fictional; however, the website says, “the attention to detail is impressive, since the script is based on a story by a former submariner.”
Not that we (as in, yours truly) are any kind of submarine expert, but we do feel the film has lots of realistic adventure: the battle scenes with enemy ships; the dislodging of an unexploded bomb; the sneaking around Tokyo Bay. All of this transpires under the watchful eye of Captain Cary Grant.
In many ways, Grant is a good choice to play a submarine captain because he’s calm and decisive. Yet in other ways, he’s an odd choice; even in rolled-up sleeves and a sweat-drench shirt, he still has the studio-lighting glow of a Movie Star.
So if we (the audience) are to buy a story about an American submarine crew on a Dangerous Mission, the film needs de-glamorization.
Somebody! Get John Garfield on the phone.
John Garfield, in our opinion, serves as the anti-Cary Grant in this film. If Grant’s character uses the word “lady”, Garfield says “dame”. While Grant talks about What’s Best For Everyone, Garfield crows about his success with women.
Garfield’s character would be insufferable in real life, but here he exudes Personality. In a claustrophobic movie like this, you need someone with enough charisma to offset the ever-present threat of enemy attack.
All of Garfield’s stories are about “dames” and he’s got a million of ’em. “Once I knew a dame who had a temperament just like a bomb,” he says off-handedly, and the effect is just as he intended – to bring levity to an otherwise tense situation.
Garfield’s character may be full of bravado and exaggeration, but he also has confidence in his crew mates and their Prime Directive. When he leaves the submarine on a life-or-death assignment, he waves cheerfully – “So long, guys!” – as though he’s off to a baseball game.
Our favourite scene is after the burial-at-sea of a beloved crew member. As the men sort the man’s personal effects, Garfield finds a do-it-yourself record which he plays for the boys. It turns out to be a recording made by the dead man’s wife, and she has a hopeful, moving message about their future after the war.
As the record plays, the crew members leave the room one by one, unable to stomach the thought of this woman receiving news of her husband’s death. Garfield, however, stays seated motionless beside the record player, absorbing everything the woman says, gently lifting the needle from the vinyl only after she says goodbye and the recording falls silent.
Although Destination Tokyo has aged fairly well, it is still a product of its time. Aside from some shocking anti-Japanese propaganda, the crew are portrayed as ultra-heroic and saintly as possible.
Which is why we need John Garfield. He takes some of the polish off this Hollywood-ized story and makes it seem more plausible.
Garfield made a career playing hard-shelled men with a soft centre. But he was not without versatility or complexity. He’d already been nominated for a Best Supporting Acting Oscar in 1939 (Four Daughters), and would be nominated for Best Actor in 1948 (Body and Soul).
In looking at Garfield’s career, the New York Times quotes actor Danny Glover who appeared in a 2003 documentary on Garfield (The John Garfield Story). ”What was wonderful about John Garfield’s acting,” says Glover, “is that you felt that in some way his story was your story.”
So it is with Destination Tokyo. While Cary Grant has top billing, it’s Garfield’s movie to steal – and he does.
Destination Tokyo: starring Cary Grant, John Garfield, Alan Hale. Directed by Delmer Daves. Written by Delmer Daves & Albert Maltz. Warner Bros., 1943, B&W, 135 mins.
This is part of the John Garfield: The Original Rebel Blogathon hosted by Phyllis Loves Classic Movies.