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: NR (Not Rated)
Brand: Warner Brothers
Manufacturer: WarnerBrothers
Original Release Date:
  • Spencer Tracy
  • Van Johnson
  • Robert Mitchum


  • Shrink-wrapped


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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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