1940s Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

Published on November 20th, 2007 | by Chris


Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

Reviewed by:
On November 20, 2007
Last modified:October 6, 2012


If you're interested in what a typical 40's "popular" wartime movie was all about, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is one of the defining classics.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)If there was a defining moment for the US involvement in World War II, it was obviously Pearl Harbor.  However the second, and I think even more important event was the April 1942 bombing raid on Tokyo launched by Col. Doolittle.  The sheer brazenness and tenacity that it showed the Japanese, not to mention giving the folks back home a little bit of a lift in spirits....  Too bad we'll never see ballsy, all-or-nothing maneuvers like that again.

In short, Doolittle put together a band of Army Air Force pilots and their B-25's, and taught them how to launch from a carrier, for a bombing raid directly at the heart of Japan.  Forget that nobody thought it could be done, dammit, they did it.  You can read the whole story over at Wikipedia....

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is a look into that raid.  Is it a particularly accurate and fact-filled look?  Probably not, but that's not the point.  Most of the film is centered on Lt. Lawson (Van Johnson), and his new wife Ellen (Phyllis Thaxter.)  And that's where the heart of this story lies.  Others have tried to pull off similar stories (such as the ill-fated Pearl Harbor) but this film really packs a punch in the emotion department, and really doesn't hold much back.

From Lawson's volunteering for a mission he doesn't know anything about, and really can't tell anyone about, he goes on to training, and on to the mission.  Unfortunately he barely makes it to the shores of China, and his entire crew, save the tailgunner, is badly injured.  In fact he loses a leg from his injuries, and has to come to terms with that, and so does his wife.

Now, picture yourself in 1944.  Imagine how many other people have gone through nearly identical situations.  A husband or son or father being called away to God-only-knows where at a moments notice, without a chance for proper goodbyes....  Only to come home (if they're lucky) seriously injured, physically or otherwise.  Perspective is everything.  But even (especially?) today that message and sentiment is just as relevant.

I can only imagine the nerve a film like this must've struck with audiences back then.

Really everything about the film is vintage 1944.  From the acting to the production, to the soft-focus closeups of Ms. Thaxter, to the Asian stereotypes and cultural misunderstandings (which really aren't even that bad in comparison to other pictures...), to the execution of the raid itself.

And I have to say I was somewhat impressed with the technical achievements of the FX crew (if you could call it that) for the raid.  I can't help but wonder how they got some of that footage together.  For its time they really pulled it off.

If you're interested in what a typical 40's "popular" wartime movie was all about, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is one of the defining classics.  Spencer Tracy also gets billing as the legendary Col. Doolittle, although his screen time is really quite limited compared to Johnson, Thaxter, and Lt. Lawson's bomber crew.

If you happen to catch Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo on DVD, like I did (thanks Netflix!) You should check out the special features section.  In there is a ho-hum newsreel piece on the French ship the Normandie, a funny bit entitled Movie Pests, and a Barney Bear MGM cartoon, Bear Raid Warden.  Watch 'em first for the proper experience!

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Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (DVD)After the devastating Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the string of defeats that followed for the United States, Lieutenant Colonel Jimmy Doolittle, devises a plan for a daring raid to strike at the heart of Japan...

DVD Information

Binding: DVD
Aspect Ratio:
Audience Rating: PG-13 (Parents Strongly Cautioned)
Brand: Warner Brothers
Manufacturer: WarnerBrothers
Original Release Date:
  • Spencer Tracy
  • Van Johnson
  • Robert Mitchum


  • Factory sealed DVD


Customer Reviews
Average Customer Review

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo:" an excellent retelling of what happened on the Doolittle Raid in 1942., March 11, 2017
Mike Powers (Woolwich, ME USA) - See all my reviews
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“Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” is the classic World War II film that tells the story of the Doolittle Raid over Tokyo that took place on April 18, 1942. Directed by Mervin LeRoy, it includes among its stars Spencer Tracy, Van Johnson, Phyllis Thaxter, Robert Mitchum, and Robert Walker. It is an outstanding example of how Hollywood filmmakers portrayed American forces as they fought in the Second World War.

Based on historical events and people, “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” tells its story from the perspective of Lieutenant Ted Lawson (Johnson), one of the actual pilots that participated in the Doolittle Raid. Lawson was the command pilot of “The Ruptured Duck,” one of the B-25 bombers that took off from the aircraft carrier USS Hornet on the morning of April 18, 1942, and bombed Tokyo in retaliation for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

“Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” does a very good job of showing what actually... Read more
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars This is a classic World War!! film that ..., July 24, 2014
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This is a classic World War IIfilm that spends the first hour introducing the representative array of airmen chosen shortly after Pearl Harbor for special training to bomb Tokyo as much for a psychological victory as a minor military triumph. The cast of MGM regulars includes Van Johnson, who made a career of playing the all-American boy with zesty innocence and Midwestern virtue, and Phyllis Thaxter as his wife. The table is well set for the main meal of the movie, an account of the rigorous training of the flyers to learn to take their lumbering bombers airborne from the restricted footage of an aircraft carrier flight deck. The movie's second half payoff comes with the exciting, pre- digital effects, documentary-like low level bombing mission over the Japanese homeland and the follow-up landings of the bombers in China where the flyers are rescued, cared for, and eventually repatriated to the United States. The film is invested with much needed heft by Spencer Tracy's... Read more
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Powerful, Enlightening, Touching and Thought Provoking, April 18, 2015
James A. Stehr (Alameda CA) - See all my reviews
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Having visited the Naval Air Museum in Alameda today, I was compelled to see this movie, not only to complete that experience but also to compliment the talk given by a man who was charged with helping to find the real "2242" after it landed and was left in Russia. Again we are in treacherous times. The spirit conveyed by this film was our great strength in those days. We should always be reminded of that spirit and its value, as we will certainly need it again, when the sun comes to earth soon in the Middle East. We owe "The Greatest Generation" very much. Indeed they were exactly that. As a child of that generation, as a "Baby-Boomer," I hope I can garner the respect of the generation that follows me, that I have for the one I have followed.

I gave it only four stars because I was put off by the ultra-syrupy, love-dovie and other happy-boy over-acting in the early part of the film. It seemed just too much like an early Disney production in... Read more
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Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) Chris

Summary: If you're interested in what a typical 40's "popular" wartime movie was all about, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is one of the defining classics.


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About the Author

I've been watching war movies for probably 25 years now. Since December 2006 I've been sharing my habit and passion for these movies here on this site.

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