Tora! Tora! Tora! – The Chain Reaction Film Club

The Rules

My chum Tim and I watch a film every week, taking it in turns to pick. The only catch? Each film has to be linked to the previous one by a shared actor. We’re on the hunt for classics we’ve missed, hidden gems and films to reappraise now we’re, uh, getting older.

Previously On…

We watched In a Lonely Place, our first Bogart in about 140 films.

The Choice

Tim was up. He had worked out that this year I’m trying to pick films that we can link to just by female cast members (to start to make up for the fact that we have overwhelmingly linked via men). That said, he’s not under any obligation to join me and the lure of Bogart was strong…

Elsewhere in the cast of In a Lonely Place, Gloria Grahame has a good filmography, including The Bad and the Beautiful starring Kirk Douglas – which seemed like fitting timing. The only other female cast member was Martha Stewart (not that one) who only has a few films to her name, and not particularly notable ones at that…

Nevertheless, Tim set his sights on a war film, and chose… Tora! Tora! Tora!

The Link

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It’s Jeff Donnell again! Perhaps this will turn into a Jeff Donnell season, who knows. She was ditzy in The Sweet Smell of Success (although it transpires a notable scene for her character was cut, so perhaps there would have been more to it…), charmingly perky in In a Lonely Place. Never really a leading lady, I’ve got a feeling that a war film is probably not going to give her a particularly juicy role. We shall see.

Tora! Tora! Tora! and me

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For some reason I tend to assume all Second World War films made before I was born were made in the 50s, so it’s always a surprise to me that that’s not the case. I’d heard of Tora! Tora! Tora! But didn’t know anything beyond “50s war film”. And given it was made in 1970, I was already pretty off the mark. I read enough in advance just to know that it was made in 1970 and was about Pearl Harbor. While I wasn’t particularly hopeful, I was immediately intrigued by a film on that topic being made at the height of the anti-Vietnam war movement…

IMDb says

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970): In 1941, following months of economic embargo, Japan prepares to open its war against the United States with a surprise attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor. 7.5 stars.

I says

This was absolutely fascinating, as much for how it was made as for the film itself. Disclosure: I am fortunate enough not to have seen Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor so happily I don’t have that to compare it to.

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“Well this is embarrassing, we appear to have worn the same outfit…”

What’s really interesting is that the Japanese side of events and the American side of events are given fairly equal weight. Not only that, the American scenes were written and directed by Americans, the Japanese scenes by Japanese. Akira Kurosawa did a couple of years of preproduction work on the Japanese scenes, but was fired as director after a couple of weeks. What becomes clear as the film rolls on (and it’s long, but never boring) is how prepared the small Japanese fleet was, and how a few key terrible decisions hampered the American fleet and ability to defend.

Tora 03

“What are the chances we’d ALL wear the same outfit?”

I suffer pretty badly from mulling over relatively inconsequential mistakes I’ve made. The time I said that stupid thing at a party… The time I ad-libbed some lines in a play and the director wasn’t happy… Sometime I wake up sweating about them, 25 years after the fact. But Imagine going through life as the guy who didn’t pass the submarine sighting up the chain of command? Imagine ignoring the radio operator’s discovery of incoming planes from an unexpected direction? Yikes.

Tora 04

“I understand you just got changed, but now you’re wearing the same as ME…”

Anyway, that’s all I’m really going to say about the film – it was handsomely shot, told the sequence of events very well and seems to be largely unchallenged on the factual accuracy of those events. Instead, I’m going to write about the character our link, Jeff Donnell played. Because I am really angry about it.

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Jeff Donnell as Cornelia Fort

On the morning of December 7th 1941, Cornelia Fort was taking a pupil up in a small plane. She was a pilot teacher in Hawaii, and had always loved planes. In the film, as in life, Cornelia was one of the first people to know about the Japanese attack. With her pupil at the controls the plane was suddenly surrounded by Japanese planes as they made their approach to Pearl Harbor. She wrestled the controls back, banked sharply away and made a break for the civilian airfield. A Zero fighter followed, and strafed them with machine gun fire as they landed. They managed to get to cover safely, though the airfield manager and two other civilian planes and their crews were not so lucky. Cornelia Fort wrote of the experience “Later, we counted anxiously as our little civilian planes came flying home to roost. Two never came back. They were washed ashore weeks later on the windward side of the island, bullet-riddled. Not a pretty way for the brave yellow Cubs and their pilots to go down to death.

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In September 1942 she became the second woman invited to join the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS), responsible for transporting planes from the factories to the airfields where they were needed. It was war work, the best she could hope for when only men were allowed in combat.

Then in March 1943, at the age of 24 and with 1100 hours of flight experience, she flew as part of a six-plane formation from Long Beach to Dallas. A fellow WAFS pilot later related the events of that flight: “Some of [the male pilots] began teasing her and then they began to pretend that they were fighter pilots. She was easy game for them, for she had never had any evasive training in military maneuvering. By the time they got to Texas, a few of the men has become too bold and were flying too close. A joke had become harassment.

At 3:30 in the afternoon the plane piloted by Frank Stamme, who had 267 hours of flight experience, got too close to Cornelia Fort’s plane and clipped her wing with his landing gear. Part of the wing sheared off, and Cornelia crashed. She was unable to bail out and died at the crash site.

The cause of the crash was officially given as ‘momentary lapse of mental efficiency’, and no blame was assigned. She was the first female pilot to die in service.

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Reading about Cornelia Fort has left me terribly sad and angry, but I think it’s a story worth being aware of. I got the details from this site if you want to read more:

The Verdict

From a brief moment in a decent, earnest film, I’ve discovered an interesting and sad story that I can’t seem to get out of my head. I guess that’s a win.

Coming Attractions

Maybe it’ll be a third Jeff Donnell film. There were three, maybe four speaking roles for women in the whole two and a half hours. And only one of those people had more than two lines (they had about four…). So I might try and pivot slightly (if I can find something from the limited pool!) and find a film which is not only linked to by a woman, but also has some actual decent roles in it for them too.

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