Pearl Harbor and Tora! Tora! Tora!

Today is the 70th anniversary of the Japanese attack on the US fleet anchored at Pearl Harbor. My intention today is not to talk about the attack but a cinematic depiction of it: the US-Japanese production Tora! Tora! Tora! directed by Richard Fleischer and released in 1970. I saw TTT with my father and brother at the Odeon Cinema in New Delhi; I do not remember the exact date (I was not even a teenager then), but I remember my viewing of TTT very clearly.

I had been brought up in a military pilot’s household, and was an enthusiastic consumer of war comics and books. The WWII movies I had seen till then were fairly simple morality plays; gallant English and Americans took on leering Nazis and Japanese and cut them down to size with a dazzling combination of weaponry, insouciance, and moral rectitude. The violence in the movies was reasonably sanitized. War appeared in these movies the way it appeared in the comics: the sort of thing a schoolboy could get behind.

TTT changed that, and quickly. It was the first cinematic description of an Allied defeat in the Second World War that I had seen; it was extraordinarily violent (and loud; the opening scene of the flyby over the Japanese Imperial Fleet shocked even this schoolboy, brought up on military bases); and it was the first time I had seen “the US”, “America”, “the USA”, come off second-best at anything. (Strictly speaking, that might not be true; it is possible that by then I had seen the US come third in the medals tally in the 1976 Olympics at Montreal).

When I emerged from the Odeon after that matinee show, blinking, into the glare of the hot Delhi sun, I was still stunned. I had known, dimly, of Pearl Harbor, but I had not realized the carnage associated with it; the shots of USN sailors on fire still haunted me.

In the years to come, a great deal of my original naivete about war would resurface in various forms. But if that sentiment ever had a competitor in my understanding of that most intense of all political conflicts, TTT had a great deal to do with it.