DESTINATION TOKYO: A Classic Example of the 1940s Propaganda War Film

Destination Tokyo Cary Grant

The Retro Set is proud to continue its relationship with Warner Archive Instant with a look at one of the archive’s most compelling–and controversial–wartime dramas, Destination Tokyo, directed by Delmer Daves. Disclaimer: This post discusses Japanese racial stereotypes common in World War II propaganda films including examples of dialogue used. 

Prior to the United States’ involvement in World War II, films produced in mainstream Hollywood glossed over or completely sidestepped discussion of the war in Europe. Once the United States declared war in December of 1941, all of the studios in Hollywood did an about-face and began cranking out feel good musicals, comedies, sentimental family films and high-tension war dramas. Most war films of this time period contained propaganda and encouraged audiences to beware of their surroundings, buy war bonds, etc. A perfect example of this type of film is Delmer Daves’s Destination Tokyo (1943). Starring Cary Grant and John Garfield, Destination Tokyo also features an excellent supporting cast including Warner Brothers staple Alan Hale along with John Ridgley, Dane Clark, William Prince, John Forsythe, and newcomer Robert Hutton.

The film opens with voice-over narration discussing preparation of plans in Washington, DC, for a top secret, “far-reaching” Navy mission. It then cuts to San Francisco where the crew of the USS Copperfin has received orders to leave on Christmas Eve, cutting short a hard earned liberty. Under the command of Captain Cassidy (Cary Grant), the Copperfin heads out into the Pacific Ocean on their top secret mission. No one on the submarine, including Cassidy, has knowledge of what the mission will entail. After 24 hours at sea, Cassidy opens the sealed orders which reveal that they are to set their course for Tokyo Bay via the Aleutians. Once off the coast of Japan, Cassidy’s crew, along with the help of the Japanese speaking meteorologist Officer Raymond (John Ridgley), will collect weather data important for an upcoming raid on the Bay.

Once the Copperfin arrives outside of Tokyo Bay, it must navigate through a underwater minefield and go unnoticed by the Japanese Imperial Fleet. Resting on the bottom of the Bay, the submarine will wait for each day’s duties until the dangerous mission is complete. If mines and Japanese destroyers aren’t enough, the Copperfin’s resident pharmacist’s mate “Pills” (William Prince) must perform an emergency appendectomy on Tommy Adams (Robert Hutton). Although this has always struck me as a rather far fetched idea, this exact scenario actually happened in 1942 aboard the submarine Seadragon (SS-194).

Destination Tokyo Cary Grant John Garfield
“An adventure in ‘Applied Americanism'”

Destination Tokyo is a perfect example of the WWII propaganda film. It is filled with patriotism, over-the-top sentimentality, and even briefly touches on belief in something versus Atheism; at the same time, it’s also filled with disgusting and horrendous racial stereotypes. Every time the film airs on Turner Classic Movies, Robert Osborne warns viewers about the shocking dialogue. For example, Alan Hale utters this disgusting little gem as he is trying to catch salmon off the side of the submarine in the Aleutians:

“You know, I’d sure like to hook an Aleutian salmon. Cute if I opened him up, and there was a Jap in there. Fried Jap in tartar sauce. Mmm.”

A completely cringe-worthy quote that is meant as “comic relief.” Immediately following that line, the Copperfin is attacked before it can submerge, in a barrage of gunfire by incoming Japanese fighter pilots. This battle sequence introduces the audience to the enemy for the very first time. The initial close-up of the Japanese fighter pilot is not a flattering one. His face is made to look twisted and evil. When the Japanese pilot is forced to eject as his plane is shot down by the Copperfin crew, John Garfield’s character Wolf quips “If that Nip doesn’t get out of there, he’ll end up with a hot seat.” As the pilot continues to float down with his parachute, Wolf continues, “I could pop him off with a clear conscience.”

As terribly racist as those those lines are, the following exchange between Cassidy, Raymond, and Cassidy’s Executive Officer may be the worst of the film:

Captain Cassidy: “There was a democratic movement in Japan after the last war. What happened?”
Reserve Officer Raymond: “The leaders were assassinated.”
Andy – Executive Officer: “Well, what about the people?”
Cassidy: “They have no voice now. Starvation is the big stick, isn’t it, Raymond?”
Raymond: “That’s right, sir. The big wage is seven dollars a week. They have no unions, no free press… nothing.”
Cassidy: “They do what they’re told.”
Raymond: “I’m afraid most of them believe what they’re told – like that “hero” who knifed your torpedo man. They’ve been sold a swindle, and they accept it.”
Andy: “But how can they support such big families on seven bucks a week?”
Raymond: “They don’t. Daughters of the poor are often sold to factories, or… worse – when they’re about 12.”
Cassidy: “Females are useful there only to work or to have children. The Japs don’t understand the love we have for our women. They don’t even have a word for it in their language.”

Ouch. How demeaning is it to 1.) not even mention their language by name, and 2.) undermine their humanity by assuming they can’t comprehend the most basic of human emotions? It’s also interesting that the generalization is made that all Japanese families are big, or at least larger than American families. This is a familiar blanket statement that tends to get applied to anyone deemed as “Other.”

In addition to the rampant use of racial slurs and negative stereotypes in Destination Tokyo, there is an interesting sub-theme on Atheism, which also plays into the entire pro-Capitalistic, U-S-A chanting theme of the film. Prior to reaching their rendezvous point in the Aleutians, a few the Copperfin crew are sitting around shooting the breeze. The conversation takes a serious turn, and Tommy, Pills, and seasoned torpedo man Mike Conners (Tom Tully) talk about their beliefs:

Tommy: “Pills, if anything happened to us while we’re out on patrol… if we got conked off, you figure we’d see our folks in the hereafter?”
Pills: “I wouldn’t bank on it. My old man wouldn’t be overjoyed to see me. He never thought I was much good.”
Tommy:  “I like to think we got souls…I don’t know.”
Pills: “All those guys I cut up at school,never found a soul inside.”
Mike: “Well, what does that prove, Pills? Say you trust a guy. You can’t see the trust, but it’s there.”
Pills: “I’m from Missouri, Mike.”
Tommy: “I’m not exactly religious. But don’t you think God…”
Pills: “No, I don’t. My angle is, I only believe what I can see.”
Tommy: “Are you an atheist?”
Pills: “Call it what you like.”
Mike: “The Japs turn the heat on us, I’ll watch you pray. I’ve seen it happen before.”

In this scene, we know very little about the sub’s only medic, the one who later will become a hero after performing an emergency appendectomy, that will save Tommy’s life. Yet, right off we are supposed to boo and hiss, or perhaps just pity him, because he doesn’t believe in God. Or at the very least, wait for the moment when Mike gets to say “I told you so” when Pills “turns yellow” and falls to his knees to pray. Because of Hays and his lovely Production Code, Pills has an epiphany, his “Come to Jesus” moment, if you will.  This reminds me of Maureen O’Hara’s character in Miracle on 34th Street. She’s a red-headed single mother, an executive, and doesn’t believe in fairy tales, fantasies, and Santa Claus (read: relationships with men and religion)? How dare she be independent!  She needs a man to set her straight!

If you take Destination Tokyo and extract all of the racial slurs, stereotypes, and intolerance toward non-believers, it is a rather enjoyable movie. Seriously. And even with those moments included, it still doesn’t take away from it being a brilliantly made film. One moment I particularly enjoy is at the beginning when Tommy asks Mike why Cassidy doesn’t wear his decorations. Mike replies with a smile, “He doesn’t have to.” It’s clear that Cassidy and his crew have the utmost respect for each other, and that ribbons and medals don’t mean anything unless the man behind them is strong and wise. This would have been an important moment for American audiences to see, especially with their husbands, sons, and brothers gone to war.

Destination Tokyo Cary Grant

Cary Grant was uncomfortable playing an American soldier in a film because he wasn’t an American citizen. He felt it disrespectful, so he made sure to put his efforts elsewhere. Grant frequently volunteered at the Hollywood Canteen, and also donated large sums of money toward British war relief. After attempting to enlist in the RAF, Grant was instructed to stay in Hollywood because he could do more for the troops and the home front. After much consideration, Grant decided to become an American citizen on June 16, 1942. Once a citizen, he decided he would make one military film as part of his contribution to the war effort, and that film was Destination Tokyo.

Destination Tokyo is what you could call a “deep track”. Because of its many flaws, it’s not one you would likely recommend to the casual classic film viewer, and it’s impossible to refer to anyone without first giving a hearty disclaimer that it is most certainly a product of its time. Even with a high level of context, modern audiences have good reason to have a hard time being forgiving. However, even with these flaws, it is impossible to understand US history from that time period without an example of this genre. While I’m most certainly not an apologist for the attitudes, stereotypes, and language used in this film and others of the period, I’m also anti-censorship. It is important that movies such as this are seen, not hidden, lest we forget our own history, no matter how distasteful at times it may be. Without doing so, the lessons that we have learned will be forgotten.

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About Jill Blake 39 Articles

Jill Blake is a co-founder & senior editor at  The Retro Set and the film editor at the pop culture website CC2K. In 2012, she was interviewed on-air by Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz, and a featured guest on the TCM podcast in 2013. In her spare time, Jill is a stay-at-home mom, wife, fried okra connoisseur, and the neighborhood’s own L.B. Jeffries. Follow Jill on Twitter at @biscuitkitten

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