That Time America and Japan Re-Enacted Pearl Harbor

Pilots prepare to attack Pearl Harbor. Image: War Movies

You’ve seen enough Hollywood war films to know, in advance, how the plot normally unfolds.

Regardless of the battle, a small group of men with disparate temperaments Band Together to fight the enemy. Despite personality clashes, frustrating leadership decisions, and clever enemy maneuvers, the men Overcome to emerge Victorious.

It’s a good formula, which is why it’s used so often. But it also means actual events are, uh, tweaked for the sake of entertainment. We all know we should take the phrase “based on a true story” with a pound of salt.

However, one Hollywood war film rejected the Tried And True by sacrificing some entertainment value to faithfully portray Actual Events.

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) is about the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, from American and Japanese perspectives. It shows us the decisions – good and bad – made by military officials in both countries.

There’s a notable absence of A-List Actors in this film, which means there is no one Hero on either side. According to the “History Through the Lens” documentary, Tora! Tora! Tora!: A Giant Awakes, filmmakers “decided not to cast any major box office star. Instead, they chose solid character actors like Joseph Cotten, Martin Balsam, and Jason Robards.”¹

They sought Authenticity by giving the film the feel of a documentary.

The attack. Image: McConnell Air Force Base

Why this film?

The 1960s were a time of financial strain for Hollywood studios because Big Budget films weren’t generating expected returns of investment. (We’re looking at you, Cleopatra.)

But Darryl F. Zanuck, head of Twentieth Century-Fox, had made a nice profit with the 1962 D-Day flick, The Longest Day. It was a welcome infusion of cash for the studio, so Zanuck shopped for another epic WWII story. The natural choice was Pearl Harbor.

Tora! Tora! Tora! is based on two books: The Broken Seal by Ladislas Farago and Tora! Tora! Tora! by Gordon W. Prange.

The script was three years in development, and was trimmed to 176 pages from a whopping 676 pages. It was then approved by officials in both America and Japan. (The studio needed the cooperation of both militaries to borrow equipment, thereby reducing costs.)

Three directors are credited on this film: Richard Fleischer, Kinji Fukasaku, and Toshio Masuda. Legendary director Akira Kurosawa was initially signed as co-director, but was replaced when he started going Over Budget.

As much as possible, actual locations were used for filming, including Ford Island, site of the U.S. military airport.

“You can’t make anything false,” said Fleischer. “[The locations] gave everybody a sense of history and historical accuracy, being there and saying, ‘This is where this happened.’ It makes a big difference to the feel of the picture and the look of the film.”²

The film, of course, isn’t entirely accurate. For example, it doesn’t mention the exercise drills Hawaiian civilians underwent prior to the attack, nor does it reveal all the ways the Japanese military received their Intel.

Tora! Tora! Tora! cost approx. $25 million US. According to Fleischer, filmmakers “spent more money reenacting the attack on Pearl Harbor than the Japanese had spent in actually doing it.”³

A bad day for military officials. Image: gCaptain

You may be wondering what “Tora! Tora! Tora!” means. According to Japan Today, Tora is “abbreviated Japanese meaning ‘lightning attack'”.4 In the film, the phrase is a code meaning: The attack was successful.

Tora! Tora! Tora! was the ninth-highest-grossing film of 1970, although its box office numbers were considered a disappointment. Even now, it has a mediocre rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and film critic Roger Ebert called it “one of the deadest, dullest blockbusters ever made.”5

The film does sag in places; however, its action sequences are spectacular – and not at all dated – which is impressive, considering it’s from the pre-CGI Era.

The most remarkable aspect of this film, we think, is the ending. In a slick bit of Hollywood-ization filmmakers couldn’t resist, the surprise attack is made to feel like an American victory. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what we mean.

If you haven’t seen Tora! Tora! Tora!, we hope you’ll get the chance. We think you’ll appreciate the effort that went into this epic war film.


¹History Through the Lens. Tora! Tora! Tora!: A Giant Awakes (2006).
³Bonus DVD material, 20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment, (2006).
4Japan Today. (Retrieved August 28, 2019.) 10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Pearl Harbor, by Amy Chavez.
5Roger Ebert. (Retrieved August 28, 2019.) Tora! Tora! Tora!.

This post is part of THE WORLD WAR II BLOGATHON, hosted by Maddy Loves Her Classic Films and Cinema Essentials.

Tora! Tora! Tora!: starring Martin Balsam, Soh Yamamura, Joseph Cotten Directed by Richard Fleischer, Kinji Fukasaku, Toshio Masuda. Written by Larry Forrester, Hideo Oguni & Ryuzo Kikushima. Twentieth Century Fox, 1970, Colour, 144 mins.



  1. Tora! Tora! Tora! is still the best film about the attack on Pearl Harbor and one of the best WWII movies ever made. I do have a soft-spot for 50s-70s war films like Patton, The Longest Day and this one.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I saw it when it was first released. As you noted, the action scenes are spectacular, but I recall it as a disjointed film without the required dramatic tension. That may be in part due to the multiple directors.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Tora! Tora! Tora! is one of those darn movies that, even though I’ve seen it and I know what is going to happen, I keep watching it if I come across it. Backside glued to couch. Telling myself to get up and do something else. Not going to happen. I’m there to the bitter end.

        Others don’t have to be like me, they can watch the movie once and let it go. I do hope those who haven’t seen it will watch it. It is a worthwhile and very interesting film.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Hands down this is still the best film about that dreadful attack. I like how it flicks between characters from both sides of the incident. The attack sequences never fail to horrify and impress. Some may sadly find it long or boring in parts, but I don’t in the slightest. Thanks so much for joining us.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s admirable the care filmmakers took in making this as realistic as possible, and it’s fascinating to see “behind the scenes” of each side. This film deserves to be more well known than it is.

      Also: Thanks for organizing & hosting this blogathon.


  4. “In the film, the phrase is a code meaning: The attack was successful.”

    Holy spoilers, did you have to give away the ending! 🙂

    When you said you were going to write about this one, I thought you probably wouldn’t like it, because it’s as dry as dirt. I always assume it’s a film for WWII buffs and aviation nerds, and not really for a general audience.

    “The film does sag in places; however, its action sequences are spectacular – and not at all dated – which is impressive, considering it’s from the pre-CGI Era.”

    What?! You can get your classic film buff card taken away for saying stuff like that! Aren’t the action sequences impressive because they’re from the pre-CGI era, not despite it? I mean, Tora! Tora! Tora! used real planes and real explosions. Real planes always look more real than computer-generated ones, don’t you think?

    Also, that middle pic looks like it’s from an air display, not the film. My suspicions were aroused by the fact that the Japanese planes are attacking a field instead of some important ships …

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Re-enacting Pearl Harbor is very cinematic, so I’m not surpisied Hollywood has attempted to do so a few times. Haven’t yet seen Tora Tora Tora! and thanks for the explanation of the title. I heard Independence Day director Roland Emmerich has a new movie out soon called Midway (2019)- about a battle which occurred six months after Pearl Harbor.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Another big fan here. I was transfixed when I finally got to see it. It was an amazing achievement to have both Japanese and American point of views and directors on board. It just adds to the realism and tension. One of the things that made Clint Eastwood’s 2 movies “Flags Of Our Fathers” and the superior “Letters From Iwo Jima” such an event.
    I’m a big fan of aviation so I was in my element seeing the actual aircraft used was fascinating.
    Great film to feature Silver Screenings esp as these events would lead to America coming into WW2 to us Allies.
    All the best… Mikey

    Liked by 1 person

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