Thursday, June 8, 2017

A Father to His Men

Submarine movies have some very specific built-in clichés. Probably the most common one is a sub having to endure hours of depth charge attacks from an enemy sub.

Of course, that particular cliché is drawn directly from real-life and is the source of intense excitement when presented effectively in a movie.

Destination Tokyo plays off that cliché beautifully. The U.S.S. Copperfin, having completed a secret mission in Tokyo Bay and then sunk an aircraft carrier, is mercilessly depth charged by Japanese destroyers. And, boy, that scene is incredibly tense.

The movie hits some other clichés as well—though to be fair, some of them hadn’t been around long enough to be clichés in 1943. For instance, the Pharmacist’s Mate has to perform an appendectomy while the sub lies on the bottom of Tokyo Bay, with another crewman reading him instructions out of a book. But the movie does scenes like these so well that cliches or corniness is never a problem. 

Cary Grant plays the sub’s commander in complete “Father to His Men” mode and his quietly authoritative performance is backed by a great cast. The movie runs a little over 2 hours—quite a long one for most films from that era. A lot of the time comes from the fact that a number of the regular crew are given definable character arcs, with the movie spending enough time with each of them to give us a lock on their personalities and get us to really like them a lot. John Garfield—perhaps the best actor in the movie other than Grant—is ironically saddled with the most one-dimensional character in the film, but he still manages to bring a sense of real personality to the role. Dane Clark, Alan Hale, Robert Hutton and William Prince also bring their characters to life.

Technical details all seem authentic as well—one of the screenwriters was a former submariner and the Navy cooperated during production. Of course, Destination Tokyo could have gotten any number of things wrong that I would not notice, but it feels real.  And that adds another layer of strength to the film as a whole.

The story involves the Copperfin sneaking into Tokyo Bay and putting ashore a team that will gather information needed by bombers who will be attacking Japan soon. This is obviously meant to be the Doolittle raid, though the movie is off in its time frame. The crew leaves San Francisco on Christmas Day, but the year isn’t mentioned. One of the crew refers back to the events of Christmas 1941, setting the film in 1942/43. So they are actually a year late to help out Doolittle.

But that really doesn’t bother me—I mention it merely to show off how smart I am. Destination Tokyo is an exciting movie. It is full of wartime propaganda, of course, but anti-Axis propaganda is hardly a bad thing and the emotions generated by the film are sincere. 

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