Tora! Tora! Tora!

Tora! Tora! Tora! is a 1970 American-Japanese film that dramatizes the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The title is made up of the code-words that were used by the Japanese to indicate that complete surprise was achieved (虎 tora is Japanese for "tiger" but in this case, "to" is the initial syllable of the Japanese word 突撃 totsugeki, meaning "charge" or "attack", and "ra" is the initial syllable of 雷撃 raigeki, meaning "torpedo attack").

The film is a dramatization based upon the actual history of events leading up to the attack, to the extent these facts were known at the time of production. The commanders in Hawaii, General Short and Admiral Kimmel, though scapegoated for decades, are portrayed as taking defensive measures for the apparent threats, including relocation of the fighter aircraft at Pearl Harbor to the middle of the base, in response to fears of sabotage from local Japanese insurgents. They received limited warning of the increasing risk of aerial attack, which was better understood in Washington than in Honolulu. Its most famous line about "awakening a sleeping giant", however, though widely assumed to be Yamamoto's words, may have been fictitious.


The film opens with a change-of-command ceremony aboard the Japanese battleship Nagato, flagship for the newly appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Combined Fleet Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto; he takes command from Zengo Yoshida. The two discuss America's embargo that starves Japan of raw materials. While both agree that a war with the United States would be a complete disaster, army hotheads and politicians push through the alliance with Germany and start war plans, believing the U.S. to be preoccupied with the war in Europe. With the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, regarded as a "knife to the throat of Japan," Yamamoto orders the planning of a preemptive strike, believing Japan's only hope is to annihilate the American Pacific fleet at the outset of hostilities.

The film depicts the Japanese and American actions as in Pearl Harbor, commanders debate their exposure to a torpedo attack but realize that torpedoes dropped from an aircraft will fall and submerge at least 75 ft below the surface. Since Pearl Harbor is only 40 ft deep, they feel they have a natural defense against torpedoes. But the Japanese have a plan to overcome this obstacle. In a major intelligence victory, American intelligence in Washington manages to break the Japanese Purple Code allowing the United States to intercept radio transmissions the Japanese think are secret. American intelligence in Washington is seen collecting increasingly threatening radio intercepts and conveying their concern to a White House staff that seems strangely unresponsive. The American response to high quality intelligence in general appears lax although Pearl Harbor does increase air patrols and goes on full alert well before the raid.

Japanese commanders call on the famous Air Staff Officer Genda Minoru to mastermind the attack. At Pearl Harbor, although hampered by a late-arriving critical intelligence report about the attack fleet, Admiral Kimmel and General Short do their best to enhance defenses. Short orders aircraft to be concentrated in the middle of their airfields to prevent sabotage. A few are moved to satellite airfields with two young Army lieutenants (Ken Taylor and George Welch) sent to Haleiwa. To his credit concerning preparing against aerial attack, Short also orders new radar stations activated and settles bureaucratic objections impeding that task. Yamamoto tries to avoid an attack and blames the Japanese Army command for pushing hard for war when peace is still an option. Yamamoto stresses that the United States is a mighty foe who would be extremely dangerous to provoke. In order to defeat the United States, he claims, destroying the U.S. fleet or even capturing Hawaii would not suffice - Japan would have to invade the mainland and dictate terms of U.S. surrender on the White House steps, an eventuality Yamamoto clearly sees as impossible to achieve.

Diplomatic tensions increase between the U.S. and Japan as the Japanese ambassador to the United States is seen asking Tokyo for more information to aid in negotiations to avoid war but getting little or nothing to work with in return. Army General Tojo is depicted as adamantly opposed to any last minute attempts at peace. The Japanese commence a series of 14 radio messages from Tokyo to the Japanese embassy in Washington that will conclude with the declaration of war. But the Americans are translating the radio messages faster than the Japanese embassy. Hence, the Americans know of the attack before the Japanese ambassador informs them. American intelligence officers are seen trying in vain to inform Defense Department and White House staff of the growing threat, but getting little reaction.

On the morning of December 7, decision makers in Washington and Hawaii are seen enjoying a leisurely routine while American intelligence works feverishly to interpret the coded transmissions and learns the final message will be received precisely at 1:00pm Washington time. American intelligence notes that the final message instructs the Japanese Ambassador to destroy their code machines after they decode the last of the 14 messages, an ominous point. Attempts to convey this message to American commanders fail because they are enjoying a Sunday of playing golf and horseback riding. Finally, Admiral Stark is informed of the increased threat, but decides not to inform Hawaii until after calling the President, although it is not clear if he takes any action at all.

Finally at 11:30am Washington time, Col. Bratton convinces army Chief of Staff Marshall that a greater threat exists and Marshall orders that Pearl Harbor (and all other Pacific installations) be notified of an impending attack. An American destroyer also notes a Japanese submarine trying to slip through the defensive net and enter Pearl Harbor, sinks it, and notifies Pearl Harbor. The Captain at Pearl Harbor dismisses the report thinking the new commander of the destroyer must have been over excited. Just after 7am the two airmen posted at the remote radar unit spot the incoming Japanese aircraft and inform the Pearl Harbor Information Center, but the Lieutenant in charge dismisses the report, thinking it is a group of American B-17 bombers coming from the mainland and frankly too tired to care (he simply says in a tired voice, "Don't worry about it," then hangs up the phone.)

The Japanese intend for their declaration of war to be issued at 1pm Washington time, 30 minutes before the attack. However, the typist for the Japanese ambassador is slow, and cannot decode the 14th part fast enough. A final attempt to warn Pearl Harbor is stymied by poor atmospherics and bungling when the telegram is not marked urgent; it will be received by Pearl Harbor after the attack. The incoming Japanese fighter pilots are pleasantly surprised when there isn't even any anti-aircraft fire as they approach the base. As a result, the squadron leader radios in the code phrase marking that complete surprise for the attack has been achieved, "Tora, Tora, Tora." Once the attack is launched, America's response is desperate and only partially effective. Upon seeing the Japanese low-level bombers, an American officer instructs his colleague to get the tail numbers so the pilot can be reported for safety violations; he thinks they are American aircraft. The sight of the offending aircraft then deliberately dropping a bomb on the base dispels that misconception.

The scene switches to a band playing the National Anthem aboard the as Old Glory is raised. Noticing the large amount of Japanese aircraft, the band hastily finishes the song before manning their battle stations, finishing just as a bomb lands close to the ship. Anti-aircraft weapons are engaged, which includes seaman Doris Miller using an unattended gun, but with limited success. The actual B-17 pilots coming in from the mainland, unarmed and out of gas, are a bit surprised to fly into a war, but are able to land safely despite friendly fire from American anti-aircraft guns.

The aircraft security precautions prove a disastrous mistake that allows the Japanese aerial forces to destroy the U.S. defenders on the ground with ease, thereby crippling an effective aerial counter-attack: all the aircraft on the runways at the major airfields were destroyed either as they took off or while they were still parked. Two American fighter pilots (portrayals of second lieutenants Ken Taylor and George Welch) race to Haleiwa and manage to take off to engage the enemy, as the Japanese have not hit the smaller airfields.

The catastrophic damage to the base is well detailed, with sailors fighting as long as they can and then abandoning sinking ships and jumping into the water with burning oil on the surface. There are also scenes where the Japanese fleet commander, Admiral Nagumo, refuses to launch the third wave of carrier aircraft out of fear of exposing his six unescorted carriers to increased risk of detection and destruction. Through the years, this action has been debated as having given the Americans a major break in their efforts to recover from the attack. A third wave would have likely struck the large oil tanks as well as destroyed the dry docks and repair facilities, potentially serious blows which could have crippled the U.S. Pacific Fleet for months by themselves.

At the end of the attacks, with the U.S. base in flames, its frustrated commanders finally get the Pentagon's telegram warning them of impending danger. In Washington, the distraught Japanese ambassador, helpless to explain the late ultimatum and the unprovoked sneak attack, is bluntly rebuffed by the Secretary Of State, Cordell Hull, who coldly replies to the final Japanese communique, "In all my long years in public service, I have never seen a document crowded with falsehoods and deliberate distortions that, until this day, I would have thought no nation on earth capable of uttering them!"

Finally, Admiral Yamamoto is seen lamenting the fact that the Americans did not receive the declaration of war until 55 minutes after the attack started and noting that nothing would infuriate the Americans more. He is quoted as saying "I fear that all we have done is awakened a sleeping giant, and filled him with a terrible resolve." While this indeed reflects what Yamamoto felt, the quote is now believed to be a fabrication.


The film was deliberately cast with actors who were not true box-office stars, in order to place the emphasis on the story rather than the actors who were in it, as so often happens in all-star cast productions. As appearing in screen credits (main roles identified):
Actor Role
Martin Balsam Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Pacific Fleet
Soh Yamamura Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, Commander-in-Chief, Combined Fleet
Joseph Cotten Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson
Tatsuya Mihashi Commander Minoru Genda, Air Staff, 1st Air Fleet
E. G. Marshall Colonel Rufus S. Bratton
James Whitmore Vice Admiral William F. Halsey
Takahiro Tamura Commander Mitsuo Fuchida, Commander, Air Group of Akagi
Eijiro Tono Vice Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, Commander-in-Chief, 1st Air Fleet
Jason Robards Lieutenant General Walter Short, Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Army Forces Hawaii
Wesley Addy Lieutenant Commander Alvin D. Kramer
Shogo Shimada Admiral Kichisaburo Nomura, Japanese Ambassador to the United States
Frank Aletter Lieutenant Commander Thomas
Koreya Senda Prime Minister Fumimaro Konoe
Leon Ames Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox
Junya Usami Admiral Zengo Yoshida, Naval Councillor-Navy
Richard Anderson Captain John Earle
Kazuo Kitamura Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka
Keith Andes General George Marshall, Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army
Edward Andrews Admiral Harold R. Stark, Chief of Naval Operations
Neville Brand Lieutenant Kaminsky
Leora Dana Mrs. Kramer
Susumu Fujita Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi, Commander, 2nd Air Squadron
Asao Uchida Minister of War General Hideki Tojo
George Macready Secretary of State Cordell Hull
Norman Alden Major Truman H. Landon
Walter Brooke Captain Theodore S. Wilkinson
Rick Cooper Lieutenant George Welch

A full cast and production crew list is too lengthy to include, see: IMDb profile.


The film was created in two separate productions, one based in the United States, directed by Richard Fleischer, and one based in Japan. The Japanese side of the production was initially directed by Akira Kurosawa, but after two years of work with no useful results, 20th Century Fox turned the project over to Kinji Fukasaku, who completed it.

Ladislas Farago, Larry Forrester, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Hideo Oguni wrote the screenplay, based on books written by Gordon Prange. Charles Wheeler, the cinematographer, was nominated for an Oscar. The film contains second unit and miniature photography, shot by Ray Kellogg. Jerry Goldsmith composed the film score.

Numerous technical advisors on both sides, some of whom had participated in the battle and/or planning, were crucial in maintaining the accuracy of the film. Minoru Genda, the man who largely planned and led the attack on Pearl Harbor is an uncredited technical advisor for the film.

The "Japanese" aircraft carrier was the Anti-Submarine carrier . The Japanese A6M Zero fighters, and somewhat longer "Kate" torpedo bombers or "Val" dive bombers were heavily modified RCAF Harvard (T-6 Texan) and BT-13 Valiant pilot training aircraft. The large fleet of Japanese aircraft was created by Lynn Garrison, a well-known aerial action coordinator, who produced a number of conversions. Garrison and Jack Canary coordinated the actual engineering work at facilities in the Los Angeles area. These aircraft still make appearances at air shows.

The footage of a B-17 Flying Fortress crash was of an actual aircraft that was used in the movie which had problems with a landing gear. Other U.S. aircraft used are the PBY Catalina and P-40 Warhawk. Fiberglass molds were made of a real P-40 used in the filming. The resulting replicas, some with working engines and props, were strafed and blown up during filming.

The flying scenes were complex to shoot, and can be compared to the 1969 film Battle of Britain. The 2001 film Pearl Harbor would contain scenes from both battles. The carrier entering Pearl Harbor towards the end of the film was in fact the Iwo Jima-class amphibious assault ship , returning to port. A sailor onboard the Tripoli recounted that he saw the smoke and fire in the harbor, and the crew did not realize what was going on at first.

Historical errors

A few film errors are made in Tora! Tora! Tora!. One mistake involves the model of the Japanese carrier Akagi. In the film, Akagi's bridge island is positioned on the starboard side of the ship, which is typical on most aircraft carriers. However, the aircraft carrier Akagi was an exception, its bridge island was on the port side of the ship. Despite this, the bridge section appeared accurately as a mirrored version of Akagi's real port-side bridge. Secondly, all the Japanese aircraft in the footage bear the markings of Akagi's aircraft (a single vertical red stripe following the red sun symbol of Japan), even though five other aircraft carriers participated, each having their own markings. In addition, the markings do not display the aircraft's identification numbers as was the case in the actual battle.

Parts of the film showing the takeoff of the Japanese aircraft, are displaying an Essex-class aircraft carrier, , which was commissioned in 1943 and modernized after the war to have an angled flightdeck. The ship was leased by the film producers, who needed an aircraft carrier for the film; Yorktown was scheduled to be decommissioned shortly afterward. It was used largely in the takeoff sequence of the Japanese attack aircraft. The sequence shows interchanging shots of the more accurate models of the Japanese aircraft carriers and the Yorktown. It does not look like any of the Japanese carriers involved in the attack, due to its large bridge island and its angled landing deck. The Japanese carriers had small bridge islands, and angled flight decks were not invented until after the war. In addition, during the scene in which Admiral Halsey is watching bombing practice an aircraft carrier with the bow number 14 is shown. Admiral Halsey was on the USS Enterprise, CV-6, not the Essex-class USS Ticonderoga, CV-14, which would not be commissioned until 1944.

To depict the , an old destroyer commissioned in 1918, the ship used in the movie which portrays the Ward looked far different from the original destroyer.

The large scale model of the stern of shows the two aft gun turrets with three gun barrels in each; in reality, Nevada's two heightened fore and aft turrets had two barrels each while the lower two turrets fore and aft had three barrels each. Another model of Nevada, used in the film to portray the whole ship, displays the turrets accurately. It should be noted that the reason for this anomaly is because the aft section model was used in the film to portray both USS Nevada and . The ships looked remarkably similar except that Arizona had four triple turrets and a slightly different stern section.

The film has a Japanese Zero fighter being damaged over a Naval base and then deliberately crashing into a Naval Base hanger. This is actually a composite of two incidents at Pearl Harbor attack: in the first wave a Japanese Zero crashed into Fort Kamehameha ordnance building; in the second wave, a Japanese Zero did deliberately crash into a hillside after U.S. Navy CPO John William Finn at Naval Air Station at Kāne'ohe Bay had shot and damaged the aircraft.

During a number of shots of the attack squadrons traversing across Oahu, a small cross can be seen on one of the mountainsides. The cross was actually erected after the attack as a memorial to the victims of the attack.


At the time of its initial movie release, it proved to be a major box office flop in U.S. theatres although it was a major hit in Japanese movie theaters, but over the years, video releases provided an overall profit.

Roger Ebert felt that Tora! Tora! Tora! was "one of the deadest, dullest blockbusters ever made" and in addition, criticised the film for poor acting and special effects in his 1970 review. Variety also found the film to be boring; however, the magazine praised the film's action sequences and production values.

The movie was critically acclaimed for its vivid action scenes (in fact several later films relating to World War II in the Pacific would use footage from Tora! Tora! Tora! including The Final Countdown and Midway) as well as its almost perfect documentary accuracy. It won an Academy Award for best special effects.

Today, the film is held in higher regard by modern critics and has a 71% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

See also




  • Dolan, Edward F. Jr. Hollywood Goes to War. London: Bison Books, 1985. ISBN 0-86124-229-7.
  • Hardwick, Jack and Ed Schnepf. "A Viewer's Guide to Aviation Movies." The Making of the Great Aviation Films. General Aviation Series, Volume 2, 1989.
  • Orriss, Bruce. When Hollywood Ruled the Skies: The Aviation Film Classics of World War II. Hawthorn, California: Aero Associates Inc., 1984. ISBN 0-9613088-0-X.

External links

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