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Thirty Seconds over Tokyo

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Thirty Seconds over Tokyo DVD case, starring Van Johnson, Phyllis Thaxter, Spencer Tracy
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Thirty Seconds over Tokyo (1944) starring Van Johnson, Phyllis Thaxter, Spencer Tracy, Robert Walker, Robert Mitchum

The old adage says that you shouldn’t judge a book by its’ cover — and that goes for DVD cases as well. Judging from the DVD case, you would think that Thirty Seconds over Tokyo is starring Spencer Tracy — and you would be wrong. Spencer Tracy does appear, and he does a fine job portraying James Doolittle, the man behind the World War II raid on Tokyo. But the central character in this movie is pilot Ted Lawson. Van Johnson portrays him excellently. The movie breaks into three parts:

  1. The initial training for the super-secret mission. Even the men being trained for the mission don’t know where they’re going or what they’ll be doing. This is mixed with newlywed Johnson’s marriage to his new wife, played well by Phyllis Thaxter.
  2. The actual mission, which is riveting to watch
  3. The aftermath, when the enemy shoots down their B-52 plane during the raid. With the aid of the Chinese people, he and his surviving men hide from the Japanese forces, treated medically — including the amputation of one leg — and eventually snuck back to the Allies. Once they return, amputee Van Johnson has to deal with the very real issue that many military men have to deal with after their injuries. He feels that he’s “half a man” with only one leg. He has to deal with his wife, she deals with the situation as well.

In all, Thirty Seconds over Tokyo is an excellent movie, with excellent acting all around, with people that the audience come to care about, and I recommend it highly.

Editorial review of Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, courtesy of

There is no more ringing title among World War II movies than Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, and the mission it celebrates was unquestionably historic: a 400-mile bombing raid to carry the war to Japan itself mere months after that nation’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Yet the film is less memorable than many WWII pictures with less exalted factual basis. At the time, critic James Agee eloquently defined both its virtues and limitations as “a big-studio, big-scale film, free of artistic pretension … transformed by its not very imaginative but very dogged sincerity into something forceful, simple, and thoroughly sympathetic in spite of all its big-studio, big-scale habits.” That remains true today, but perhaps the movie–and its unimpeachably noble, admirably life-sized characters–wouldn’t seem so stuck in the amber of a bygone era if Mervyn LeRoy and company had pumped a little “artistic pretension” into it.

Spencer Tracy–as James H. Doolittle, architect of the raid–rates the most towering screen credit, and he’s superb. But his role’s an extended cameo; the emotional core of the film is B-25 pilot Ted Lawson (Van Johnson) and his wife, Ellen (the glowing Phyllis Thaxter). Lawson’s bestselling memoir (with Bob Considine) of his training for the secret mission, his group’s launching from the aircraft carrier Hornet, and his crash landing and protracted ordeal in China–where he lost a leg–has been faithfully served. The film is long on homely detail and all-American decency (including a remarkably outspoken regret over the unavoidability of civilian casualties) but achieves its greatest impact in the raid itself. That sequence, in addition to boasting Oscar-winning special effects, is mostly shot in riveting silence. –Richard T. Jameson

Movie quotes from Thirty Seconds over Tokyo

Lt. Bob Gray (Robert Mitchum): [pensively] When I was a kid, I used to dream about going someplace on a ship. Well, here I am!
Lt. Ted Lawson (Van Johnson): And out there is Japan. My mother had a Jap gardener once. He seemed like a nice little guy.
Lt. Bob Gray (Robert Mitchum): You know I don’t hate Japs yet. It’s a funny thing. I don’t like them, but I don’t hate them.
Lt. Ted Lawson (Van Johnson): I guess, I don’t either. You get kind of mixed up.
Lt. Bob Gray (Robert Mitchum): Yeah.
Lt. Ted Lawson (Van Johnson): It’s hard to figure, yet here we are.

Lieutenant Jacob ‘Shorty’ Manch (John R. Reilly): Well feed me corn and watch me grow! How did all this scum get in here?

Lt. Ted Lawson (Van Johnson): Goodbye.
Young Dr. Chung (Benson Fong): I have one sorrow, Lieutenant. that we did not have the medicine to ease your pain.
Lt. Ted Lawson (Van Johnson): You saved my life, Doc.
Young Dr. Chung (Benson Fong): I hope that someday you’ll come back to us.
Lt. Ted Lawson (Van Johnson): We’ll be back. Maybe not us ourselves but a lotta guys like us, and I’d like to be with them. You’re our kind of people.
Young Dr. Chung (Benson Fong): Thank you, sir.

Secret mission

Gen. James Doolittle (Spencer Tracy): [Addressing all the flight crews, assembled in the USS Hornet’s briefing room] Lt. Jurika has detailed maps and pictures of cities and specified targets. Mr. Jurika spent a great many years in Japan. I think it might be a good idea if he gave you some idea of what kind of people you’re going to run up against in case you’re forced down. Mr. Jurika.
Lieut. Jurika (Leon Ames): [Lt. Jurika gets up and addresses the men] I was assistant Naval attaché at our embassy in Japan, long enough to learn a few things about the Orient.
Lt. Bob Gray (Robert Mitchum): Just what should we do, Mr. Jurika? How should we conduct ourselves, in case we are forced down over Japan?
Lieut. Jurika (Leon Ames): My advice is, see that you’re NOT forced down over Japan.

Gen. James Doolittle (Spencer Tracy): [on the phone] Hello, hello, York? Doolittle. I want you to get twenty-four B-25’s and volunteer crews down to Eglin Field as soon as you can. The job’ll take ’em out of the country for about three months. Tell ’em it’s a secret mission. They won’t know where they’re going until they get there. That’s right, volunteers. tell them they’re not to talk to anybody. That’s an order!

Love story

[repeated lines]
Lt. Ted Lawson (Van Johnson): Tell me, Honey, how come you’re so cute?
Ellen Lawson (Phyllis Thaxter): I had to be if I was going to get such a good-looking fella.

Ellen Lawson (Phyllis Thaxter): Oh, Ted, I’m going to write you a letter every day you’re gone. I know they won’t deliver them. I won’t even mail them, but I’m going to write them anyway. That way we’ll kind of be in touch. That way we’ll feel close.

Cast of characters

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