I have wondered, off and on, about what Destination Tokyo would be like, a film released late in 1943 about a submarine crew in World War 2. I generally like submarine films, and Toyko has one hell of a cast, but I'm also generally cautious when it comes to any films about WW2 made during the war, as they are generally made to serve a patriotic/propagandist message, rather than telling a fully, fleshed out story...
So how does Destination Toyko hold up?
Destination Tokyo revolves around the USS Copperfin, a submarine which is tasked to head out from port on Christmas Eve on a secret mission, which just so happens to involve them sneaking into Tokyo Bay to drop off a meteorologist/spy on the coast to help gather intelligence for the execution of the Doolittle Raid (the first bombing run on mainland Japan, which you may remember being a 50 minute chunk from Pearl Harbour...which...yeah). The crew is a mix of newcomers/recruits, and some who have been aboard to Copperfin for several different missions under Captain Cassidy (Cary Grant). The film runs from the crew leaving San Francisco, heading through the Aleutian Islands to pick up the meteorologist, sneaking into Tokyo Bay, and then getting involved in their own way in the Raid.
First off, I have to say that Destination Tokyo has a lot more nuance than most war films of this era; the characters are a great deal more nuanced and fleshed out than I was expecting when I started--part of this could be thanks to the 140 minute run time, allowing the writers (and the actors) some ability to be more than a stock character. I was not sold on Cary Grant as a submarine Captain to start, but as the film went on, and we spent more time with him (and his crew) he really grew on me, to the point that I came to appreciate this as one of his finer performances.
The writing, and particularly the pacing were quite good; I have to suggest that you be willing to push through the first half an hour or so of Destination Tokyo, as it starts rather similarly to most War films, and comes across as pretty shallow, but the time spent early on does pay off as the film continues. I was also particularly impressed by the humanity, and the balance that was shown for a film made during the war--there is a...perhaps sadness is not the right word, but a bit of a reflection by the Captain on who they are fighting (even though it does not seem like it in the above trailer. At all.) Now by no means is it a Letters From Iwo Jima, but considering the film is released in 1943--when the War is still in the balance--it's notably different.
When I say the writing was "quite good", I do mean that...as it does have a tendency to wander a little bit. John Garfield's character called "Wolf" is a bit on-the-nose for a while (thankfully paying off, but it takes some getting there), and there are some strange, philosophical shifts all of a sudden, but nothing so egregious as to make the film hard to watch.
The action and the story overall are engaging, particularly in the final hour wherein the Copperfin is making it's moves around Tokyo Bay, as the film is constructed in such a way that it narrows it's focus down onto the mission perfectly, but giving you the character background, and an interesting twist to keep the tension going, all the way into the sub being hunted by Japanese ships.
The film does occasionally suffer a bit from a propagandist feel, as it is something of a "FEEL EMOTIONS NOW" story on occasion, but considering the company it is in for the era, it does not get to the point of silliness (justified silliness, as it had a purpose at the time, but often does not age well). The ending feels pretty sudden, but at the same time, at 140 minutes, I don't think we needed much else in it, and it did allow for the feeling of triumph to be intermingled with a joy, and family quickly, which is a good trick for a film of this ilk.
At the end of the day, I do think that if you are a fan of submarine films, or if you like films about World War 2, Destination Tokyo is definitely worth a shot. Even though it does take some getting used to, it's an excellent example of World War 2 Cinema at it's best.
Even if a few of the dissolves between submarine models and faces are a little weird...
PS: If there is a film you are wondering about that you would like me to feature in a "Better Late Than Never", feel free to hit me up on Twitter, or send us an email (the envelope at the top right corner of the page) and I will do my best to get to it for you.