52 Code Films – Week #35: “Destination Tokyo” from 1944

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Today is Sunday, so it’s time for another 52 Code Films article! Every week this year, I have agreed to watch at least one Breen Era film (1934-1954) made in America that I have never seen before. I designed this series to help expand my knowledge of Code films and the Golden Age of Hollywood. This is my first article in this series or any other which I am publishing in September, since today is September 1. This is the first day in two months on which we could watch both an un-Code film and a Code film which we have seen before! We avoided un-Code films during July in honor of #CleanMovieMonth85, and we avoided Code films during August in honor of #AMonthWithoutTheCode65. Now, in September we can watch any films we want. It will be nice to get back to watching Code films aside from my one new movie each week, which I continued throughout August.

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Today’s topic is Destination Tokyo from 1943. We have had this film in our VHS collection for years. My parents saw this movie at some point, but they didn’t watch it for years after that. Some time last year, my father watched it again by himself. He found it extremely captivating and well-made, and he told me that he thought I would like it, too. He considered it to be an excellent example of a Code war film and urged me to watch it. I didn’t get around to watching it for several months. When I heard about The World War II Blogathon, I found a good opportunity to combine this new Code film with a blogathon topic. Thus, I watched this film on Thursday.

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During World War II, a U.S. submarine leaves San Francisco on Christmas Eve for a top-secret mission. Not even the captain knows what their goal is. Twenty-four hours out, he opens the envelope and discovers that their destination is Tokyo Harbor! He has completed five successful cruises, but this one could have a greater cost than his previous missions. Other members of the crew are a nonsense-filled ladies’ man, a Greek-American sailor who has a personal grudge against the enemy, a fun-loving and caring cook, an atheist pharmacist mate, and a gunner with a strong faith in God and the power of prayer. This family man befriends a young sailor who is on his first cruise, and they find they share a common faith in a higher power of protection. In the Aleutian Islands, the ship picks up another Navy man who has been assigned to this mission. It is their job to bring him to Tokyo so that he can convey information about enemy activity to the Allied forces. He was chosen for this job because, having been raised in Japan, he can deceive the enemy by radioing information in Japanese. The submarine faces dangers in enemy waters to pick up this man, and they suffer the loss of a brave crew member. Eventually, they reach Tokyo Harbor. Through careful skill and the mercy of a kind Providence, they enter the harbor unnoticed and hide underwater until three men can get ashore for their mission under the cover of darkness. Then, they submerge again and wait for information. While they are waiting for the return of their men, the youngest member of the crew is taken ill with acute appendicitis. The only person aboard with any medical training is the pharmacist mate, but he has only watched a few appendectomies. As the submarine sits on the ocean floor, the crew holds its breath as the surgery is attempted with kitchen utensils. It will take a lot of faith for the young sailor to survive and for the entire crew to escape Tokyo Harbor alive.

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The submarine’s captain is Capt. Cassidy, played by Cary Grant. The ladies’ man of the crew is Wolf, played by John Garfield. The Greek-American sailor is Tin Can, played by Dane Clark. The young sailor who is on his first cruise is Tommy Adams, played by Robert Hutton. The submarine’s cook is Cookie Wainwright, played by Alan Hale. The kind torpedo man who befriends Tommy is Mike Connors, played by Tom Tully. The atheist pharmacist mate is Pills, played by William Prince. The man taken aboard the submarine for a special mission is Reserve Officer Raymond, played by John Ridgely.

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Production Notes

This film was directed by Delmer Daves. It was produced by Jerry Wald. The executive producer was Jack L. Warner. The production company was Warner Bros. The screenplay was written by Delmer Daves and Albert Maltz. It was based on an original story by Steve Fisher. The premise was based on the real military incident known as the Doolittle Raid. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Story for Steve Fisher.

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Code Compliance

This is a perfect Code film. It is a great testament to everyone involved with the filmmaking process that this war movie, which was so realistic that the Navy used it as a training film, is acceptable for everyone to watch. It depicts a submarine going to the most dangerous place possible, Tokyo Harbor, yet there is very little violence depicted onscreen. There are a bunch of sailors on a submarine, yet no coarse language is used. An imaginative ladies’ man is a prominent member of the crew, yet no inappropriate content or indecent references to women are included. A perilous and prolonged appendectomy is performed aboard the submarine, but no gory or disgusting details are shown or referenced. This movie remains a thrilling and accurate depiction of World War II, and it really puts you on board with all those brave men. What film from the twenty-first century could do as much and receive a milder rating than R? In any other time, gratuitous violence, excessive blood, foul language, and coarse content would have been included to give the film “realism.” I think this film realistically shows the horrors of war without sickening its viewers. The only possibly questionable element is the inclusion of two usages of the word Nip, a forbidden expression for the Japanese. Since the war was raging while this film was made, I think the Production Code Administration made some exceptions to diplomatic gestures toward a race which was now the enemy. What makes this movie an especially good war film is that it shows the higher purpose. Did all the able-bodied American men leave home for years and risk their lives just to slay other human beings of a different race? No. They were risking their own safety and survival for a cause, the cause of America, its ideals, and the God-given rights for which our country stands. Without patriotism and faith, America couldn’t have fought and won the war, and this film shows the marvelous spirit of the Armed Forced during World War II.


My Opinion

I really enjoyed this film. I think it is one of the best World War II films I have ever seen. Now that I have seen more combat films made during the second world war, I find that I greatly prefer them to those made in the 1950s and 60s. Those made in the later 1940s are good, but there is something about the movies made while the war actually raged on two fronts which is unique. There is a realism, a vital pulse, and an uncertainty. It’s like reading a mystery in which even the author doesn’t know the conclusion. Love stories are left unfinished, happily-ever-afters are postponed, and grand finales are often marked by the girl waving goodbye to her sweetheart as he goes back to combat. Although there is a determination for victory and a constant affirmation that we must win, no one really knew what the outcome of the war would be. Films made during this time were intended to cheer, assure, and inspire audiences on the homefront and overseas. Movies like this encouraged everyone to do his part for the war effort, and they can have the same effect today. When I see a movie like this, it makes me grateful for the sacrifices and victories of that now distant war. It also makes me want to be a better citizen during peacetime. This movie is exceptional because of its brilliant actors. Cary Grant is magnificent as the calm and wise captain of the submarine. The rest of the crew is brilliant, as well. Every man has something special to bring to the story. I think young Tommy is my favorite supporting character. He looks like a young James Stewart, and he has the same charm. He is so hopeful, kind, and brave. Destination Tokyo‘s action scenes are very exciting and nerve-wracking, but, as I said before, they are not distastefully violent. The scenes which I liked the best were the tender scenes of comradery and tender interaction between the men on the submarine. The discussion of prayer between Mike and Tommy is very touching, yet Pills stubbornly says that he doesn’t believe in anything he can’t see. He seems very bitter, so he must have some troubling memory in his past which makes him so disturbed and cynical. Mike says that, when the bombing starts, even he will pray. Before Tommy goes under the ether for his appendectomy, he starts saying the Lord’s Prayer. When Pills says “amen,” it’s obvious that peril has softened his heart, too. Some of my other favorite moments were when the men were speaking lovingly of their wives and children. There is virtually no female dialogue in this film, and only a few women are seen, but it is obvious that these men are fighting for the families back home whom they love.

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I highly recommend this film. If you like war films at all, you will love this film. If you don’t usually like war films, I think you will like this movie, since it has more than just battle scenes. The action sequences are few and brief. The rest of the film has more suspense. If you appreciate great acting from classic actors, you will enjoy the interaction between the men aboard the ship. The dialogue is brilliant, realistic, and diverse. There is a pleasing amount of comedy in this film. It is often found when Wolf is annoying Tin Can with his exaggerated stories about his romantic conquests. Most of the other comedy involves Cookie, who is very humorously played by the amusing Alan Hale. Even during intense sequences, such as when depth chargers are exploding all around the submarine, the mood is lightened by Cookie hiding in the kitchen and sailors betting on where the bombs will explode, in typical Warner Bros. style. If you are a Cary Grant fan, be sure to add this to your list of films to watch. He is peerless in this role! You may think that this movie sounds too heavy for you, but I assure you that it will warm your heart more than it will chill your spine. From the Christmas scene aboard the submarine to the captain’s story of getting a haircut with his little boy, this movie has more light moments than dark ones.


For the Blogathon

From September 1 to September 3, The World War II Blogathon is being hosted by Maddy of Maddy Loves Her Classic Films and Jay of Cinema Essentials. I am joining this acknowledgement of World War II because it is such an important part of the Breen Era. Joseph Breen became the head of the Production Code Administration in 1934, just one year after Hitler took power in Germany. The very first film released with a PCA Seal of Approval, The World Moves On, included references to Hitler, Mussolini, and Japanese activity which would become the Axis in just a few years. The first anti-Nazi film released under the Code was made in 1939. By 1941, America had joined the war, and the films related to this topic began rolling out as quickly as Hollywood could make them. Call them propaganda films if you like, but they honestly reflected the patriotic feelings of Americans during this difficult time. From Pearl Harbor in 1941 until the Armistice in 1945, World War II was the number one focus of the United States. Even the period pieces made during this time often included a war message, which may be missed by modern viewers but was very pertinent to 1940s audiences. After victory, the effect of the war could be felt and seen in films for years to come. The influence remains even today. Any devoted student of the Breen Era and the Golden Era of Hollywood in general should have a thorough understanding of World War II to fully understand the movies made during this time. The facts can be learned from books, but the best way to gain a thorough knowledge of the war is to watch the films made during this time.

Making war movies during the war was complicated. Although filmmakers wanted to give an accurate view of things, they had to be careful. For instance, the interior of the submarine in Destination Tokyo had to have different interior equipment and devices than a real submarine so that the film would not accurately reveal the interior of American submarines to the enemy. Military secrets had to be protected, morale had to be maintained, and anti-American propaganda would not be tolerated. Also, filmmakers’ personal grudges or opinions could not be allowed to interfere with the greater good of the war effort. Who was there to ensure that these standards were maintained during the crisis? The Production Code Administration found its already enormous duties enlarged by the war, since it was their duty to see that filmmakers maintained patriotic as well as moral standards. The greatest difficulty was knowing how much to allow. Many felt that the PCA should allow a loosening or slackening of the tight restrictions during the war, but Joseph Breen insisted that standards be maintained. He allowed a few usages of the mildest swear words, which had been allowed very rarely even before then, but only in the most special circumstances. Some violence had always been allowed, and this careful but reasonable standard was not abandoned. One of the hardest standards to maintain was the racial fairness rule. It was especially difficult in regard to Germans. Jewish filmmakers wanted to demonize the Germans for what they were doing to their kinfolk in Europe, but the PCA acknowledged that the Nazis had many American kinfolk. German-Americans couldn’t be stripped of their rights to fair representation because their mother country had a wicked leader. The rules were less strict for Japanese fairness, since there were few Japanese-Americans in the 1940s. Germans looked like brothers to the average Americans, but Japanese were so culturally different that it was easy to make racial slurs. Do the depictions of the enemy in 1940s war films look racial and bigoted to you? Look at the war propaganda outside of the movies, and you will find it to be at least twice as bad. Films were very fair because of the Code.

One of the most democratic and fair scenes in this film takes place after one of the crew members dies. The men are bitter and angry because the Japanese pilot whom they tried to save from the water stabbed one of their comrades. The captain speaks to them and tells them how much their departed comrade loved his children. He remembers how proud the man was to buy a pair of roller skates for his five-year-old. The Japanese soldier who just died also got a present from his father when he was five years old, but it was a dagger, which he was taught to use. From then on, he was trained to kill. In this short speech, Captain Cassidy puts the war into perspective. The average Japanese soldier is not vastly inferior to the average American soldier. He too is an intelligent human being, made in the image of God. However, he has been conditioned by a violent society led by dictators. He didn’t have the advantage of growing up in a wonderful country like the United States of America. The captain concludes that the purpose of the war is to rid the world of societies that put daggers in the hands of five-year-olds. It is his hope that, some day, Japanese children will have roller skates at age five instead of daggers. Many people say that this film and others from the same time display bigotry and racial prejudice. I think that the above exchange is as fair as you can ask any country to be against an enemy which bombed it during peacetime without warning and without provocation. The Code helped Americans to not be blinded by the anger, revenge, and hatred of war. Movies like this helped us to remain fair toward our enemies and to regard them with pity rather than contempt, for the average enemy soldier was just doing his duty.

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Calling all Phans to PEPS! This year, on September 23-25, I, Rebekah Brannan, will be hosting The Phantom of the Opera Blogathon. The title tells you exactly what it is. This blogathon will be dedicated to all adaptations, spin-offs, prequels, and sequels of the immortal tale The Phantom of the Opera! As devoted Phans, my sister and I could not let the 110th anniversary of the beginning of the original novel’s serialization in the newspaper Le Gaulois pass without some form of commemoration. I invite all of you to celebrate this wonderful event by joining The Phantom of the Opera Blogathon! Now, stay away from trapdoors, beware of shadows, and always keep your hand at the level of your eyes, because we’re off to the Paris Opera!

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8 thoughts on “52 Code Films – Week #35: “Destination Tokyo” from 1944

  1. This is quite an unusual role for Cary Grant. It’s not the type of film we normally associate him with, and submarine films are an interesting sub-genre. I assume this is one of the earliest wartime ones (We Dive at Dawn was made around the same time).

    There’s a tendency to see war films made during the war as essentially propaganda. But what you say about the uncertainty and lack of knowledge about the outcome of events is interesting. It does give films from this time a different quality, and the genre cliches and stereotypes are not necessarily fully in place yet.

    Also, I was intrigued by the idea of an appendectomy being carried out with kitchen utensils. Presumably, not an egg whisk or a spoon (!).

    Thanks for taking part in the blogathon.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Speaking of “unusual” Cary Grant roles, it’s another WWII movie in which Cary Grant totally plays against type. “Walter Eklund” in “Father Goose” is soooo not the “usual” Cary Grant character, but I love it!


    • Dear Jay,

      I’m glad that you liked my article! This is indeed an unusual role for Cary Grant. For years, I have been familiar with his Shurlock Era role as a submarine captain in “Operation Petticoat” from 1959. Although that film is very funny, I think that this is the better movie. As for the appendectomy, it thankfully wasn’t performed with an egg whisk and a spoon! Instead of a scalpel, Pills used a special set of kitchen knives which the crew gave to Cookie for Christmas. They were ground to the proper shape and boiled first. Also, they poured the ether through a kitchen strainer. Thank you for hosting this blogathon! I enjoyed it.

      Yours Hopefully,

      Tiffany Brannan


  2. It is sad and true that if they made this movie now it would be rated R. That is why I love Code movies, they take meaningful stories and make them so anyone can see! I want to see this now!

    MovieCritic | Movies Meet Their Match

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I have not seen Destination Tokyo since my teen years but recall that it made quite an impression on me with its fine cast and story. I shall have to revisit this at the nearest opportunity.

    – Caftan Woman

    Liked by 1 person

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