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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Review: Destination Tokyo

Back in the day, and I'm talking way back in the day, during the Second World War, Hollywood was
pumping out patriotic movies by the dozen. They weren't all blockbusters or Oscar-bait, to be sure, especially when the movie market was saturated with them. As one studio executive said, "I don't want it good, I want it Tuesday!" I have yet to see a particularly bad motion picture from that era of film history, but I'm sure that even some of the lesser ones were a bit more above par than some of the stuff we have today. A lot of stuff then was better than the stuff of today.

Destination Tokyo is, happily enough, one such film.

I watched this film way back in January, so that's just a brief testament to my review backlog on my side of the internet. Anyway, Destination Tokyo chronicles the journey of a lone submarine across the Pacific into Japanese waters on a vital scouting mission. It stars the famed Cary Grant in the lead role as Captain Cassidy, a father to his men and a altogether agreeable sounding fellow. The rest of the submarine crew include the macho guy Wolf (John Garfield), the naive newcomer Tommy (Robert Hutton), who's a regular Billy Budd, plus affable Cookie Wainwright (Alan Hale), the, uh, cook, and Pills (William Prince), an atheist pharmacist's mate, the closest thing the crew has to a doctor. Together, this crew of American sailors is determined to get to Tokyo and complete their mission, braving all the dangers along the way.

First of all, I've gotta say that for an old movie, this flick is intense. Submarine movies usually are, but man, Destination Tokyo hits the nail right on the head. Everything about this film is done with a subtle intensity, from the performances to the character arcs to the effects. The acting is very well done, with Grant and Hutton doing their jobs particularly well. Hutton provides a fine performance as the naive, inexperienced newcomer Tommy, who, like I said, is a regular Billy Budd. Hutton plays the roll with a sincerity and authenticity that rivals that of even Cary Grant, who masterfully portrays the role of the tough but good captain. He's something of a nicer version of Gregory Peck's Frank Savage from Twelve O'Clock High, except that his crew actually likes him the whole way through. It's a well oiled machine we see here, and while that doesn't provide for much internal conflict, it does provide us with an entertaining and fun team dynamic.

Another thing which makes this movie better than most others is the presence of actual character arcs. That is to say, over the course of this movie, people change. Tommy, the most relatable character in the cast, becomes more experienced. Pills abandons his atheism. Wolf becomes less of a macho man and more of a real man. Even Cookie and Cassidy both develop, if not as overtly and obviously as the others. In short, the whole cast develops somehow by weathering the difficult, dangerous situations they are thrust into. Speaking of the whole cast, there is a large cast, including a bunch of guys who I didn't mention. The thing here, however, is that the characters all manage to be very individualized and memorable, so that you can pick one out from the other. In a monochromatic film, this is a pretty big accomplishment. The characters are all well fleshed out, and that's good, because there are a lot of heavy themes in this picture, and in order to pull of heavy themes well, you need to have well developed characters.

What are these heavy themes, you ask? First and foremost there's camaraderie among fire forged friends. When you have hundred or so guys cooped up on a confined space on a dangerous enterprise for a long time, you're bound to create some lasting friendships. Another big theme that Destination Tokyo deals with is fear in the face of danger. During a depth charge attack, everybody on the sub is scared, and Cassidy says as much. They're scared, but that shouldn't stop them from doing their job. And it doesn't. One of the biggest and most apparent themes in this movie, however, is why the U.S. needs to defeat Japan. There are several instances in which the crewmen comment on and discuss the mindset and society of the "Japs." It sounds pretty blatant and even racist to our modern ears, but back in the day, a portrayal like this was pretty fair for its time. The enemy Japanese aren't demonized or condemned; rather, they're humanized and pitied. As Captain Cassidy says, "There's lots of Mikes dying right now. And a lot more Mikes will die. Until we wipe out a system that puts daggers in the hands of five-year-old children." In other words, a primary lesson that people should learn from this movie is that bad guys have gotta go, or people on both sides are going to suffer.

With all this talk of heavy themes and stuff, the reader might think that this film is all doom and gloom. Far from it! It's actually pretty humorous at many points. At the same time, however, it is very suspenseful, such as when Pills has to perform an appendix operation in the sub on the sea floor of Tokyo Bay. It's all done with some pretty clever cinematography which I'm sure my film making friend Caleb would appreciate. In short, the movie will make you laugh, it will make you sit on the edge of your seat, and it might even make you cry. It's a beautiful film, and it's an engaging, entertaining piece of cinema. It's not explicitly grim and gritty like, say, Das Boot, but it's still pretty darn good. For all of you history buffs out there, you'll love it. If you like submarines and ships and what not, you'll adore it. My dad sure did.

RATING: 9/10

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