Cary Grant did a few war pictures, as did practically every male star who wasn’t drafted into service, and Destination Tokyo is the one selected for this week’s tribute to Grant. I’ve mentioned in past reviews of film in this genre that I’m not a fan of war movies; they tend to be repetitious and offer little of interest to me. Destination Tokyo presumes that you’re not interested in epic battles but character development; it’s also unique in its presentation of naval seamen trapped in a submarine for the duration of the runtime. Despite a prolonged two-hour runtime, there’s commanding performances from Grant and John Garfield (marking his second appearance in a themed week) that turn this into an atypical war picture. Captain Cassidy (Grant) is tasked to take a group of American soldiers into Tokyo Bay in order to spy on the Japanese in preparation for an upcoming air raid. As the group navigate into treacherous Japanese waters, events happen both on-shore, and within the submarine, that could compromise their mission and their lives. I’ll admit, I wasn’t confident or excited to watch this film. Not only is it a war picture, but it also has Delmar Daves as screenwriter and director. The last film of his I reviewed was the dreadful A Summer Place. I should have a determination on whether he’s a director of merit soon, as we’ll see him behind the camera during Busby Berkeley week. Luckily, Destination Tokyo is an engaging war film with a mature script filled with heart, humor, and suspense that was lacking in the previous film of Daves. Daves is a capable director probably due to the fact that 95% of the film takes place in a single location. As with all films in the submersible genre, you feel the claustrophobia as well as the sense of camaraderie between the men. There’s zero privacy inside the ship, evidenced by Cassidy hoping to gain a respite from war by writing to his family, only to be interrupted by various duties on the ship. The war permeates and invades every facet of the men’s lives and a minute can’t go to waste.
At odds with this sense of edginess is the extreme patriotism evinced; there’s constant reminders in every nook and cranny of this movie that these men are patriotic. One shipmate backtracks on mentioning his Greek heritage and revises it with “I’m Greek-American.” There’s a sense of pride, and then there’s the movie’s need to slap you in the face with the American flag. There’s not even a genuine score, despite the presence of Franz Waxman; the songs are riffs on old standards like “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Home on the Range.” The obsessive need to remind American audiences of how fantastic America and its gifts are is a key reason war pictures feel repetitive to me. American audiences understand how to feel about their country, particularly during wartime, so why waste valuable screentime discoursing on the obvious? Occasionally, the script provides intriguing commentary worth exploring, although some of it reflects poorly on the time period. A rather surprising moment involves Cassidy and a few sailors discussing what the people of the various Axis countries must be feeling; part of this is to emphasize America as the saviors to the Japanese and German people. In past war pictures, characters are quick to blame the entire nation, regardless of whether the people of Japan, Italy, and Germany are behind the war. The sequence, as Daves writes it, takes the time to alert the audience that the people of these countries aren’t to blame, it is the leaders in power. Unfortunately, a few lines reflect poorly on American views of the period such as Grant proclaiming that “The Japs don’t understand the love we have for our women.” Cary, it’s 1943; in a few years that phrase is going to sound really silly. It’s funny to modern audiences, but I’m sure for the time a discussion such as theirs was unique. For two hours and fifteen minutes you can’t say there’s an absence of character development. You will care about these men by the end. Grant is stoic and grave when necessary, but has several anecdotes throughout that show off his warmth and desire to return home. However, the scene stealer of the film is John Garfield as Wolf. Garfield was in last week’s Humoresque, in a role I felt he was miscast in. With Destination Tokyo, Garfield finds his niche; he’s gregarious, flirtatious, and a man’s man. The perfect representation of the war man during this time period. He’s also given the comedic lines which bring attention to his comedic timing. As he fraternizes with his fellow sailors he looks at a picture of a man’s presumed girlfriend:
Wolf:”You’ve got a cute military objective there.”
Officer: “She’s my sister.”
Wolf: “And intelligent, too!”
For over forty-five minutes, you meet, bond, and respect the various men of this ship. When the youngest sailor needs an appendectomy, there’s a marked tension in the air. The doctor of the ship – a man whose never performed an operation – is sweating bullets. It’s not the enemy’s bullets coming for them, but the fear of realizing their on their own. The final battle sequence is shot well – although you can tell when stock footage is used – but it’s the goings-on within the submersible; the fact that these men hold each others lives in their hands that creates the true fear.
Destination Tokyo has elements of the prototypical war film, but the few moments where the script deviates are a breath of fresh air. By placing events within a submarine, there’s an added layer of fear, strategy, and turmoil that would be different if the men were fighting on the ground. Grant and Garfield dominate and lead a solid group of young men that you come to care about.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.