Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Remembering the Doolittle Raid, Hollywood-style

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the Doolittle Raid, the first U.S. air strike against Japan during World War II. The raid was conceived and commanded by Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle and was full of aeronautical challenges: B-25 bombers were launched for the first time from an aircraft carrier on one-way flights over Japan, carrying barely enough fuel to attempt risky landings in occupied China. While the damage to strategic targets was minimal, the mission was a moral boost to Americans eager for retaliation after Pearl Harbor, and it damaged the credibility of Japanese leaders who had told their people Japan was untouchable. Here's a look at three movies that commemorate the raid.

Spencer Tracy as James Doolittle in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)
Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
Van Johnson stars in this 1944 film, which depicts the raid from conception through execution and follows Johnson's Ted Lawson as he attempts to escape from Japanese-occupied China after a crash landing. Spencer Tracy appears sporadically as Doolittle.

A B-52 bomber leaves the deck in Pearl Harbor (2001)
Pearl Harbor
On the whole, this 2001 film directed by Michael Bay is a rather overdone melodrama with laughable dialog and a confounding romantic triad between lead actors Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale, and Josh Hartnett. Its take on the raid is hurried, but the big budget is nice to look at. Alec Baldwin plays Doolittle in a relatively small part.

Cary Grant in Destination Tokyo (1943)
Destination Tokyo
The actual raid is not shown in this 1943 film starring Cary Grant, nor does Doolittle appear. It's an exciting submarine movie, though, about a crew tasked with infiltrating the Japanese mainland to gather information vital to the first air strike against Japan.

See also:
Remembering D-Day, Hollywood-style
Remembering Pearl Harbor, Hollywood-style


  1. Hi Jeff. Of those three movies, I haven't seen Destination Tokyo but I've been planning to as I always enjoy a good submarine movie. I have to say I found both of the others a bit of a chore though.
    BTW, it's been a while since I last saw it, but wasn't The Purple Heart based on the aftermath of the Doolittle raid?

  2. Hey Colin --

    Thanks for reading and for the comment.

    Pearl Harbor is definitely a chore. It's one of those action movies that barely conceals its conventions, one which makes Twister or Independence Day seem completely plausible (though admittedly I have come to like Twister and have lightened up on Independence Day somewhat). I have mentioned its special effects before as a possible saving grace, though even those are a bit thick and add some distance between me and the movie. (They don't look too digital, but they're close...)

    Thirty Seconds over Tokyo is much better, though I get hung up on Van Johnson's goofball demeanor. I wasn't sure what to make of the amputation hallucination (see my earlier post Life or Limb for a clip) -- I found it effective, but a bit comical. It probably could have worked just as well in Airplane!

    Destination Tokyo creates some effective tension (an emergency surgery of its own, a scene involving the disarming of a bomb which is palpably claustrophobic even for a submarine movie), and while it is not based upon actual events (at least none that I know), its plot is not overtly outlandish. Plus, Alan Hale!

    Thanks again for reading!


  3. PS - Haven't seen The Purple Heart, though it sounds interesting. Another "after the war" drama with Dana Andrews, who was in one of my favorites, The Best Years of Our Lives. I'll have to give it a look -- thanks for the tip!

  4. The Purple Heart is definitely worth a look. It's a real propaganda piece, but incredibly well done. And the cast is just outstanding.