Tora! Tora! Tora! is the kind of movie that high school history classes love to show. The 1970 movie tells the story of the December 7th, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor which drew the United States into World War II. The reason it’s a favorite of U.S. history teachers is that great efforts were made to adhere to historical accuracy. Both sides of the story are told from a largely objective standpoint. Richard Fleischer directed the America side of the story, while Kinji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda handled the same duties for the Japanese side. The result is sort of a dramatized history lesson. The movie is quite an achievement and well worth seeing. It has arrived fully restored on Blu-ray, coinciding with the seventieth anniversary of that fateful event.
It also feels kind of dry, which often leads people to believe it longer than it actually is. The running time doesn’t even quite reach the two-and-a-half hour mark, but it feels like a much longer movie. For all its significance and attention to getting most of the details correct, the long build up to the actual attack is a little lacking in urgency. It is not a serious problem, but it does give the feel of a documentary rather than a relatable story. Even with a few well known cast members, including Martin Balsam, Joseph Cotton, E.G. Marshall, and Jason Robards, the detached tone makes the movie difficult to really warm up to.
Compared to the more recent Michael Bay directed Pearl Harbor (2001), the staging of the attack is of course going to seem dated. But the effects are actually very effective. Bay’s film is loaded with computer-generated imagery, which has become so commonplace these days that there is something very impressive in seeing analogue effects. In fact, Tora! Tora! Tora! won the Academy Award for Best Special Visual Effects. Its technical achievements were strong enough to earn nominations for Best Cinematography, Art Direction, Editing, and Sound. The acting is serviceable but not the type that really stands out. And with a G-rating, this isn’t a movie that features any graphic violence, another reason it may feel quaint by modern war movie standards.
Tora! Tora! Tora! probably has not looked this good since pristine 35mm prints hit theaters in 1970. The 50GB Blu-ray looks pretty amazing, with one of the best transfers I have ever seen of an older movie. Luckily it still looks like a movie of its time, with natural grain visible during the entire movie. This could easily be used as a reference for showing just how perfect a 40-plus year old movie can look when it is restored properly. There are no problems with sharpness, even the widest shots during the attack are completely clear. Textures are very realistic, with great detail apparent in clothing or the craggy faces of some of the older actors. Colors are naturally subdued, it’s just the way the film was shot, but they are consistent throughout the entire movie. Contrast is consistent as well, which was a problem in some previous home video releases.
The soundtrack has been expanded to a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. Considering the age of the movie, the mix works pretty well for the most part. There are not a lot of effects that come from the surround speakers, though they aren’t silent either. During the attack sequence is when the effects are most notable from the rear speakers. The mix can’t really be compared to a modern, fully immersive mix. Actually I think the original mono mix should have been included as an option as well. Expanding older mono mixes to meet today’s surround sound expectations usually has mixed results. Tora! Tora! Tora! is no exception, but overall there is nothing wrong with the audio. Jerry Goldsmith’s score sounds great and effectively spread around the various channels.
Most of the special features have been carried over from the previously available DVD release. That release was packed with features though, so there may not have been much else to add. They are available here in standard definition, including a feature length documentary called History vs. Hollywood – TORA! TORA! TORA!: A Giant Awakes and the shorter documentaries Day of Infamy and AMC Backstory. There is an informative audio commentary from the director Richard Fleischer and Japanese film historian Stuart Galbraith IV. “Movietone News” offers a bunch of actual World War II newsreels totaling about forty minutes. Also of note is that two cuts of the films are available for viewing: the original theatrical cut and a nearly four minute longer extended cut.