In 1941, The United States of America suffered a humiliating tragedy when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, but they were not about to take this assault lying down, and the military top brass quickly planned a reaction to this outrage. A selection of U.S. Air Force airmen were assembled in a top secret location where they would be trained to fly a raid over Japan and bomb targets such as Tokyo, and one of those men, Ted Lawson (Van Johnson), would go on to write a book about his experiences. This is the story taken from that book about how around eighty flyers would have their skills as pilots honed to perfection, and how much the revenge attack would cost them all...
If you watch much of Hollywood World War II propaganda, you'll notice a generally upbeat attitude to the conflict, in that there would be no doubt in the minds of the filmmakers that the Allies were going to win. But the reality was different, for it was not a certainty by the point a movie like Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo was released - the conflict still had about a year to run before the Axis forces were defeated - and that offered works like the most famous propaganda movie of all time, Casablanca, a resonance that spoke to the heart far more than the war films produced in retrospect to celebrate any victories you cared to mention. You can see the nervousness in this little item.
Well, it wasn't little back then, it was entirely necessary as American involvement had gone on for three years by this stage and the public were getting understandably fatigued, never mind the troops doing the actual fighting. Therefore a piece like Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo was vital because it reminded them first, why they were in combat, and second, that successes were entirely possible so there was no reason why they should not continue and result in eventually beating the other side in a bitterly fought war. The Doolittle Raid was one which would be fresh enough in the minds to have everyone who saw it think, "Hell, yeah! We can do this!", but it was by no means rose-tinted.
Yes, the sequences where Lawson and his wife (Phyllis Thaxter) made goo-goo eyes at each other had schmaltz laid on with a trowel, but you know Noel Coward's old saying about never underestimating the power of cheap music, and these blatant tugs at the heartstrings were both way over the top and, for the World War II audiences, so close to home that they could not have been anything but ruthlessly effective. Especially in light of how Lawson ended up - obviously he survived, because he wrote the book this is based on, yet it was not without sacrifice, and the story builds towards a finale that would not have left a dry eye in the house back in 1944. Even today, you are well aware you're being shamelessly manipulated by director Mervyn LeRoy, but the fact it was more or less true gave intensity.
In between, there was the tale of the raid, one which may not have damaged Japanese locations to the extent that they hoped, but was a huge victory for morale, undermining the Japanese and bolstering the Americans. It also showed to the Japanese that they were not invincible, and could be harmed, so they had to regroup to that effect. Whereas the training sequences are served up as if the recruits were at a holiday camp, there were always those darker clouds threatening on the horizon, and that added a poignancy to the scenes where they tried to let their hair down and relax in the shadow of some very grim times ahead. Spencer Tracy played Colonel Doolittle in a handful of extended cameos (you can spot a pre-fame Robert Mitchum there too), but it was Johnson who carried the drama (unfairly considered a lightweight, the heartthrob nonetheless shows the scars which were the result of his serious accident that prevented him serving in combat), and the special effects work of the actual attack were terrific. A lot better than you might think. Music by Herbert Stothart.