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Tora! Tora! Tora! Critical Essay

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Updated: Sep 9th, 2019

In 1939 Hitler and the Nazis decided to conquer the whole of Europe. A short while later they secured an alliance with Japan. The Japanese Imperial army were aware that the significant U.S. military presence in Pearl Harbour, Hawaii is something that gave them a great deal of insecurity and they had to eliminate this threat.

Thus, in 1941 a daring raid was conducted and the radio code signal in the event of success is a Japanese term now known all over the world as Tora or Tiger. In 1970 Hollywood produced a film that would tell the story from both sides and the title of the said movie was known as “Tora! Tora! Tora!” a shout of victory for the Japanese and the signal that the Americans were defeated. This is a prelude to what would happen next. The movie was received well in a Japan but not in the United States.

Box-Office Appeal

In order to understand the purpose of making the movie and why a Hollywood studio was willing to spend a great deal of money producing the film, one has to understand the context of the times. The movie was released in 1970.

This means that it was almost the 30th anniversary of the Pearl Harbour attack and it would be the best time to tell the story from two perspectives. The Western world is so familiar with the way the story was recounted through the eyes of the victors. It is therefore time to hear the other side of the story from the perspective of the vanquished.

Aside from the desire to acquire a balanced view of the story, the detailed recounting of this very important chapter in military history will also show how the Japanese succeeded because it was not just a daring raid but devastating blow to the enemy. The producer of the said film wanted to capitalise on the fact that people wanted to know that side of the story.

Marketing Tool

With regards to the question if the movie can be used as a marketing tool, there is no definitive answer. However, this question can be interpreted another way.

If the fact that the producers of the film tried to create a historically authentic film can be used to sell the movie to the general public? The answer is yes, this feature of the movie can be utilised to drum up support and promote the film more effectively. But the general public did not have the same aspirations as the producers of the film. They will go to the cinema for the drama and the entertainment value of the movie and not because the director created something that is a faithful re-enactment of history.

Artistic Freedom and Historicity

In every movie the challenge is always focused on the critical as well as financial success of the venture. The critiques must give it a positive review and then at the same time there is a need to entice people to go and watch the film. There is a need to find a way to sell it to the general public.

It has to be creative and it has to be entertaining. It can only be entertaining if the director knows how to tell a story and present it in such a way that would make it interesting to watch. This requires knowledge of film techniques as well as an overall sense of what the audience would love to see in a war movie.

In the case of Tora! Tora! Tora! the directors creative capabilities were significantly limited by the overriding goal of creating some sort of a documentary film about the Pearl Harbour incident in 1941. Although it is clear to everyone involved that this is not a documentary film, the producers made it clear that guiding credo for making this movie is historical accuracy at all cost “a doctrine that proved to be both the film’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness” (Niemi, year, p.114).

In other words the film was historically accurate because the people behind it crafted a movie with painstaking attention to detail but it was not a rewarding experience for movie-goers in terms of the excitement usually generated by a work of fiction.

Main Objective of the Movie

The producers of the said film did not criticize or attack the subject matter. This means that they wanted to tell the story in an objective manner. Therefore, the film had to be historically accurate. They spared no expenses to reach this goal. This insistence made the film a success when it comes to showing graphic images and an accurate recounting of the facts.

However, the movie going public will not spend money to learn more about history. Their main goal in watching is to have a wonderful experience a wonderful experience through the power of cinema. Thus, many were disappointed of the outcome of the said film.

According to one commentary, the use of dialogue culled from official records “provided a faultless representation of the political and bureaucratic, and diplomatic intrigues in the months leading to the attack … the problem with such an approach was that it was dramatically monochromatic” (Niemi, year, p.114).

The sentiments of the movie-goers was captured by this one statement from a film critique “Consequently, Tora! Tora! Tora! fails as a drama and entertainment” (Suid, p.179). It can be said that the movie was painfully boring to watch.


The driving force behind the movie is both artistic and financial. This means that the producers wanted to retell the story from both sides – from the Japanese and American perspectives. In addition, another main motivational force that prompted investors and key personnel to develop the said epic is based on the fact that war movies were well received in the past.

The best example is the film entitled The Longest Day. In fact, iElmo Williams, the second unit director of The Longest Day, joined forces with 20th Century Fox mogul Darryl F. Zanuck to create Tora! Tora! Tora! (Finler, year, p.124). But the movie was a flop.

The reason for its failure was linked to the persistent desire to make a historically accurate rendering of the story. The producers went to great lengths such as shooting in “far flung locations, disguising modern ships as WWII-era vessels, restoring some thirty period aircraft and destroying mock-up and model ships and planes to push the cost at an exorbitant $25 million and in today’s dollars this means that the cost reached up to $120 million” (Niemi, year, p.114).

As a result, it was a huge hit only in Japan but the film “generated poor box office returns in the United States … that nearly bankrupted 20th Century Fox and forced Daryll Zanuck into retirement” (Niemi, year, p.114). Nevertheless, the end result of the collaborative process is a movie that children can watch and use it as a tool to broaden their knowledge about the horrors of war.


The producers of Tora! Tora! Tora! thought wrongly that the movie going public wanted to see an accurate depiction of the Pearl Harbour attack. They learned too late that a war movie has to have drama and entertainment not just historical accuracy as its overall theme. The main purpose for going to the cinema is to be entertained.

It was a boring experience for many and so the movie did not generate money for 20th Century Fox. But they can find encouragement in the fact that in later years their efforts were greatly appreciated because now the critiques understood what they wanted to accomplish.


Finler, J.W. (2003). The Hollywood Story. London: Wallflower Press.

Niemi, R. (2006). History in the Media: Film and Television. CA: ABC-CLIO.

Suid, L.H. (1996). Sailing on the Silver Screen: Hollywood and the U.S. Navy. MD: U.S. Naval Press.

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