A group of men, all volunteers and all of them pilots or men that work on planes are gathered together for a secret mission by Spencer Tracy. As they get to know each other and begin training, as they spend time with their loved ones and prepare for something that has to be important, all they know is that it will involve the skills they have come to learn while being in the midst of a World War. It soon comes to light and the men finally learn that they are to bomb Japan, to strike back against those that would dare to attack American soil.
Not that it would be a rare occasion for Van Johnson to star in this dramatic feature but it would be one that would have the man emote a little more than his usual fare. Having appeared in numerous war films, the man was no stranger to them and yet he also had his fair share of comedies and musicals, playing the affable lead, the guy next door, the best friend, the love interest and so on. In Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, the man would portray a pilot, one of those who would volunteer for the secret mission and while it was successful, the plane he flew would end up crashing and his character Ted Lawson would end up losing a leg as a result. For the most part, Johnson would play that amiable fellow throughout the film and yet when the time came, he would give it his all and truly put across his performance of a man going through hell before, during and after losing a limb. Johnson’s believable performance would make this already good picture great and make him a standout from the cast of stars that surrounded him.
As for those, they would include Spencer Tracy, Robert Walker, and Robert Mitchum in an early role among many others like Phyllis Thaxter, Don DeForce, Stephen McNally and more. It was a stacked cast for sure and yet the film would need it having been based upon the true events of the Doolittle Raid of 1942, itself featuring a cast of real heroes. Tracy was as good as always, the man slipping into the role effortlessly and while his part was not the largest of them, he would still make a good showing of it. Mitchum was solid and Walker was just as talented as the studio believed, proving it onscreen for all to see. Thaxter would make the audience fall in love with her as much as her on-screen husband but in the end, it was Johnson who carried the picture from the first scene to the last, everything revolving around him as he leaves a boy and comes back a man.
If there is one thing that stands out about the film, aside from the cast, it is the patriotic complexion of it all, the feel-good nature of comradeship between strangers who have all joined together to stand and fight for something they believe in. Made during a time where men and women treated each other with respect, the movie is like a love letter to a lost time, one that grows further away with each passing day and thus, as the picture moves on from scene to scene, one cannot help but smile and completely enjoy what unfolds before them.
Watching this, the audience has to wonder just how the men on this mission were able to pull it off so well but as chronicled within, there was a lot of training to be had and a lot of trust to be instilled within each other, something that would come a little easier to the men of the time. While there would be enough drama for almost two movies, there was still time for a smidge of romance as seen with Johnson and Thaxter, a bit of music here and there and just a little comedy to keep it a bit light and not so overly serious. Written by Dalton Trumbo and directed by Mervyn LeRoy, they would send Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo into the history books as one of the best war films ever made and deservedly so.
4 out of 5