skip navigation
Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo(1944)


FOR Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) YOU CAN


TCM Messageboards
Post your comments here

Remind Me

TCMDb Archive MaterialsView all archives (1)

DVDs from TCM Shop

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo General Jimmy Doolittle trains... MORE > $15.79 Regularly $19.98 Buy Now


powered by AFI

teaser Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)


To pay the Japanese back for their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, 16 B-25s undertake a risky takeoff from the deck of an aircraft carrier on a one-way trip to bomb Tokyo and Yokohama (this was the first time a plane this large had attempted such a takeoff). But first Ted Lawson (Van Johnson), captain of a bomber nicknamed The Ruptured Duck, and his men are put through intensive training before embarking on their perilous mission. With no fuel to return home, they set a course to crash on the Chinese mainland, behind enemy lines, in hopes that the peasants there will sneak them to safety in the North.

Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Producer: Sam Zimbalist
Screenplay: Dalton Trumbo
Based on the book by Ted W. Lawson and Robert Considine
Cinematography: Harold Rosson, Robert Surtees
Editing: Frank Sullivan
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse
Music: Herbert Stothart
Cast: Van Johnson (Ted Lawson), Robert Walker (David Thatcher), Don DeFore (Charles McClure), Phyllis Thaxter (Ellen Lawson), Stephen McNally ('Doc' White), Robert Mitchum (Bob Gray), Scott McKay (Davey Jones), Louis Jean Heydt (Lieut. Miller), Paul Langton (Captain 'Ski' York), Leon Ames (Lieut. Jurika), Benson Fong (Young Dr. Chung), Alan Napier (Mr. Parker), Ann Shoemaker (Mrs. Parker), Selena Royle (Mrs. Reynolds), Spencer Tracy (Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle), Morris Ankrum (William F. Halsey), Karin Booth (Girl in Officer's Club), Steve Brodie (MP Corporal), John Dehner (Lieutenant Commander), Blake Edwards (Lieut. Smith's Crewman), Leatrice Joy Gilbert (Girl)
BW -138 m.


Like many Hollywood films about World War II made between 1942 and 1944, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo was based on an actual wartime campaign, Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle's 1942 bombing raid on Japan; it gave audiences back home a sense of how the war was going. Many critics have credited the film with playing a major role in bringing home the realities of World War II to domestic audiences.

Contemporary reviewers hailed Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo as the finest aviation film made during World War II.

In a long career including such classics as I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) and Random Harvest (1942), Mervyn LeRoy's simple, straightforward work on Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is considered his best direction.

Dalton Trumbo's screenplay is considered the best of his work before he was blacklisted in 1947.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo brought Van Johnson his first starring role in an A picture, after getting a career build-up in supporting roles and low-budget films. It also marked the screen debuts of Phyllis Thaxter, cast as his wife, and the last minor supporting role for Robert Mitchum, then a freelance actor; he would graduate to leading men roles in his next feature, Nevada (1944).

by Frank Miller

back to top
teaser Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

Hollywood made three other films about Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle's bombing raid on Japan, though they were fictionalized accounts. The three were Destination Tokyo, Bombardier (both 1943) and The Purple Heart (1944).

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo was so convincing that military pilots tried to duplicate the aerial maneuvers created by MGM's Special Effects Department. While serving as an Air Force correspondent in the Pacific, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo learned that attempts to copy the quick, short-distance takeoffs in the film had increased the number of aircraft accidents.

For the film's 1955 re-issue, new credits were shot with Van Johnson, Robert Mitchum and Spencer Tracy billed above the title. Mitchum had moved into the spot previously held by the then-deceased Robert Walker.

The air raid sequence was used again in Bridge to the Sun (1961), while the shot of Tokyo taken from the nose of Capt. Lawson's bomber would be used under the opening credits of Midway (1976).

In the '70s, Van Johnson filmed a commercial for Post Fortified Oak Flakes on a set reminiscent of the flight deck of the USS Hornet. His final line was "Take me to Tokyo -- and back!"

The rock band Pere Ubu named its 1975 debut single after the film.

by Frank Miller

back to top
teaser Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

During location shooting in Pensacola, Florida for Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, General Hap Arnold gave director Mervyn LeRoy an early look at the B-29 bomber, still in development. After seating the director in the cockpit he cautioned him not to tell anybody how the new plane worked. "General Arnold," LeRoy said, "you have nothing to worry about. I don't even know how an electric light works."

LeRoy had to shoot a complicated aerial sequence for Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo in Florida on a cloudy day. When the cloud cover finally broke, he shouted into his microphone, "Bring them in. Bring them in while the sun's out." Unknown to him, his words were broadcast to air towers all over the state, where nobody knew what he was talking about. The incident even made the next day's papers.

The choir of Chinese children who sing "The Star Spangled Banner" in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo were conducted by Dr. Phillip Lee, a pastor, who also translated the national anthem into Chinese.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo premiered in New York with a benefit for the Sixth War Loan drive. The Los Angeles opening was a benefit for the Volunteer Army Corps.

MGM advertised the film with the line "Heart-Warming Romance...Stark, Sensational Drama! Thrills! Action! Adventure!...Ripped From The Heart!"

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo was a big hit for MGM, bringing in $4.5 million in domestic rentals. It would help make Spencer Tracy the number five box-office star of the year. A year later, Van Johnson would enter the top ten at number two.

While Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo was shooting at MGM, an executive decided Robert Mitchum's car was too beat-up for the studio parking lot and told him to either get a new car or park somewhere else. The next day, Mitchum was four and a half hours late for his call. When he arrived, he explained to LeRoy and producer Sam Zimbalist that he had been forced to take the bus to work. By day's end, the ban on his car had been lifted, and Mitchum was never late again.

According to some sources, Mitchum had a fling with the unhappily married Lucille Ball while filming Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo on the MGM lot.

While MGM was still considering signing Mitchum, they showed some of his scenes to their famed acting coach, Lillian Burns, and asked her to work with him. When they met, she told him she wasn't going to work with him because she didn't want to get in the way of his natural talent. "Do what you've been doing," she told the young actor, which is exactly what he did for the rest of his career.

Robert Mitchum's supporting performance in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo convinced RKO Pictures to offer him a long-term contract.

For some reason, composer Herbert Stothart included bits of the title song from Oklahoma! in the score, even though none of the characters in the film are from that state.

Robert Mitchum: Baby, I Don't Care by Lee Server
Mervyn LeRoy: Take One by Mervyn LeRoy


"One-hundred and thirty-one days after December 7, 1941, a handful of young men, who had never dreamed of glory, struck the first blow at the heart of Japan. This is their true story we tell here." -- Opening title card.

"Hello, hello, York? Doolittle. I want you to get 24 B-25's and volunteer crews down to Eglin Field as soon as you can. The job'll take 'em out of the country for about three months. Tell 'em it's a secret mission. They won't know where they're going until they get there. That's right, volunteers. Tell them they're not to talk to anybody. That's an order!" -- Spencer Tracy, as General James Doolittle, setting up the mission.

"Oh, Ted, I'm going to write you a letter every day you're gone. I know they won't deliver them. I won't even mail them, but I'm going to write them anyway. That way we'll kind of be in touch. That way we'll feel close." -- Phyllis Thaxter, as Ellen Lawson.

"Tell me, Honey, how come you're so cute?"
"I had to be if I was going to get such a good-looking fella." -- Van Johnson, as Lieutenant Ted Lawson, and Thaxter, as Ellen Lawson, sharing a repeated exchange.

"When I was a kid, I used to dream about going someplace on a ship. Well, here I am!" -- Robert Mitchum, as Lieutenant Bob Gray.

"Well feed me corn and watch me grow! How did all this scum get in here?" -- John R. Reilly, as Lieutenant Jacob 'Shorty' Manch.

"I have one sorrow, Lieutenant, that we did not have the medicine to ease your pain."
"You saved my life, Doc."
"I hope that someday you'll come back to us."
"We'll be back. Maybe not us ourselves, but a lotta guys like us, and I'd like to be with them. You're our kind of people." -- Johnson, as Lieutenant Ted Lawson, bidding goodbye to Benson Fong, as Young Dr. Chung, who cared for him in China.

Compiled by Frank Miller

back to top
teaser Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

Four months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which brought the U.S. into World War II, the Army Air Force launched a series of retaliatory strikes against Yokohama and Tokyo. The bombing raids served primarily as a morale boosting maneuver at home and an attack on Japan's confidence. All the planes were lost, but only three men died in the crashes, and the Japanese executed another three. Aside from eight others held prisoner by the Japanese, the rest of the men escaped through China or were interned in the Soviet Union. One of the pilots who flew in the raids, Captain Ted. W. Lawson, joined forces with newspaper columnist Bob Considine in January 1943 to set down his personal account of the mission. They wrote Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo over four nights and two days while staying at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C, and the book was out before the year's end. It originally appeared as a serial in Collier's Magazine.

Like most Hollywood studios during the war years, MGM was doing its part by making films about the major campaigns. In the days when movie attendance was at an all-time high, such films served the function television would in later years in giving viewers on the home front a sense of what was going on overseas. Through friends in Los Angeles, Lawson got in touch with producer Sam Zimbalist and worked out a deal to sell the film rights to MGM for $100,000.

MGM notified the War Department that they had three goals in making the film: to improve public morale, to dispel rumors that the Army and Navy were not working together effectively during the war and to generate support for China's part of the war effort by showing how the Chinese Army and peasants helped downed U.S. flyers escape the Japanese. The studio did not, however, mention that the Chinese helping the downed flyers were Communist guerillas.

To make the details of the raid as accurate as possible, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo interviewed Lawson and other men who had flown the mission. Wartime censorship prevented him from mentioning the name of the aircraft carrier from which they flew or the fact that one of the planes had crashed in the U.S.S.R. However, the War Department let Trumbo fly on B-25s for research. The screenwriter also incorporated a real detail into the film: Like the real-life carrier, the USS Hornet, there was a dried hornet's nest on the deck of the film's plane.

Believing that his performances as heroic wartime figures in A Guy Named Joe (1943) and The Seventh Cross (1944) were typecasting him, Spencer Tracy initially turned down the role of Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle. At one point, MGM was set to cast Brian Donlevy in the role, with Doolittle's blessing. Tracy finally agreed to accept the part when his friend Van Johnson was cast in the film's lead; the senior actor wanted to help boost the young actor's career.

Robert Mitchum won his supporting role on the strength of a strong performance in the B-movie film noir When Strangers Marry (1944) and the urging of his agent, a friend of director Mervyn LeRoy's. The director tested him for 30 different roles, then told him, "You're either the lousiest actor in the world or the best. I can't make up my mind which." LeRoy tried to convince MGM to sign him to a contract and even considered signing him personally for a projected film version of The Robe. Instead, he sent Mitchum to the head of RKO Pictures, where he was hoping to make the biblical epic. That studio signed him, and one year later, Mitchum became a star in Story of G.I. Joe (1945).

by Frank Miller

The Tough Guys by James Robert Parish

back to top
teaser Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

MGM filmed the training sequences in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo at Eglin Air Force Base in Pensacola, FL, where Lieutenant Colonel James H. Doolittle had trained his men for the mission. Other scenes were shot at Mines Field in Los Angeles, Mills Field in San Francisco and the Alameda Naval Air Station near San Francisco. The Army loaned the studio 12 B-25s for the production and supplied men to fly them. Doolittle and General Hap Arnold provided technical advice throughout filming. Ted Lawson, on whose book the film was based and who was played by Van Johnson, was the film's official technical adviser.

During location shooting, many of the young actors in the cast bonded over their boredom and the tough living conditions. They also attracted the ire of many of the enlisted men, who resented their not being in the service. As drinking increased, so did clashes between the cast and the military men. At one point Robert Mitchum gave a brutal beating to a drunken sergeant who was causing problems for co-star Robert Walker.

Because the Navy could not supply an actual aircraft carrier for the shoot, most scenes of the team launching and preparing at sea were created by combining newsreel footage, rear projection, miniatures and other special effects. MGM built a mock-up of the USS Hornet's flight deck on Stage 15. The set was large enough to hold four B-25s.

The actual take-off scenes in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo were created by building about 80 percent of the flight deck on a scale of one inch to the foot. The miniature was then set in the studio's water tank. The special effects team couldn't generate waves large enough to move a model of that size, so the carrier was attached to a hydraulic system that duplicated its movement at sea while pumps pushed water past it. Miniature planes attached to piano wire were moved in synchronized patterns to simulate the takeoffs. This was then combined with newsreel footage of the actual mission.

San Francisco and Oakland filled in for Japan for some aerial shots in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. When an oil refinery in East Oakland caught fire, it provided the footage the special effects department needed to recreate the bombing. The aerial approach to Tokyo was filmed by mounting cameras on the noses of several B-25s flown over the Pacific towards Los Angeles, while aerial shots of China were made near Santa Maria, CA.

Van Johnson had been in a serious car wreck while filming A Guy Named Joe (1943). Afterwards, makeup artists usually had to cover his forehead scars. For the final half of Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, after Johnson's plane crashes in China, they simply let the real scars show rather than adding fake scars.

The set was particularly tense the day they filmed the amputation of Johnson's leg because Lawson was there watching every take.

by Frank Miller

back to top
teaser Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

Long before Saving Private Ryan (1998) amazed audiences with its brutal portrayal of war, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) was the special effects blockbuster which brought home the experiences of World War II for the American public.

Based on the memoirs of Captain Ted Lawson, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo is a documentary style re-creation of the first American strike on Japan in retaliation for the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Following Capt. Lawson, played by Van Johnson in his first major screen role, we watch the flight team, which includes Spencer Tracy as Col. James Doolittle, and Robert Mitchum in his last minor role as Bob Gray, prepare for their dangerous mission. Because island bases near the target were unavailable, twin-engine bombers, in a historic first, had to take off from the deck of an aircraft carrier. When a storm forces the mission to depart ahead of schedule, an unpredictable situation occurs after Capt. Lawson and his crew complete their mission. They are forced to crash land in Mainland China where they become dependent on Chinese guerillas to smuggle them to safety.

Though the actual mission was planned as a publicity stunt rather than a military maneuver, MGM felt that a picture based on the dramatic events of the bombing would contribute to public morale. Seizing on the opportunity for high profile propaganda, the War Department cooperated within the limits of security, providing twelve B-25 bombers along with pilots to fly them. Because an aircraft carrier could not be loaned to the production, MGM's head of Special Effects, Buddy Gillespie, was called in to reconstruct the dramatic launch of the bombers. Employing miniatures built on a scale of one inch to one foot, Gillespie built a 60-foot version of the aircraft carrier Hornet, and launched it in the studio's 300 square foot water tank. Miniature bombers attached to an overhead trolley with piano wire were then shot, and the photography combined with newsreel footage. The result was a breathtaking sequence that could have been lifted directly from an actual Air Force documentary.

Refreshingly free of contrived heroics and forced wisecracks, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo was a huge critical and commercial success when it opened for the first time in 1944. Thrilling audiences to the tune of $4.5 million - a huge figure at that time - 'and garnering an Oscar for Best Special Effects, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo was labeled by Newsweek Magazine as "one of the finest war movies to date," and it's just as enjoyable today.

Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Producer: Sam Zimbalist
Screenplay: Dalton Trumbo
Cinematography: Harold Rosson, Robert Surtees
Editor: Frank Sullivan
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Paul Groesse
Music: Herbert Stothart
Cast: Van Johnson (Lt. Ted Lawson), Robert Walker (Corporal David Thatcher), Tim Murdock (Lt. Dean Davenport), Don DeFore (Lt. Charles McClure), Phyllis Thaxter (Ellen Lawson).
BW-139m. Close captioning. Descriptive Video.

by Bill Goodman

back to top