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FIRST YANK INTO TOKYO(director: Gordon Douglas; screenwriter: story by Gladys Atwater/J. Robert Bren; cinematographer: Harry J. Wild; editor: Philip Martin; music: Leigh Harline; cast: Tom Neal (Major Steve Ross), Barbara Hale (Abby Drake), Marc Cramer (Lewis Jardine), Richard Loo (Colonel Okanura), Keye Luke (Haan-Soo), Clarence Lung (Major Ichibo), Michael St. Angel (Michael St. Angel), Leonard Strong (Major Nogira); Runtime: 82; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: J. Robert Bren; RKO; 1945)
“I could see this film being more powerful when viewed during the war.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A far-fetched war thriller shot during the waning days of WW11, that was entertaining but not convincing. The plotline was revised to keep it topical, as it became the first Hollywood film to address the use of the A-bomb on Japan. Originally, First Yank into Tokyo centered on the invention of a new kind of gun. It stars the ill-fated Tom Neal, who was to make one great film Detour (1945) and then watch his blossoming career self-destruct. He got into a fistfight with Franchot Tone over actress Barbara Payton, an incident the studio held him responsible for and which caused him to stop getting starring roles. Payton afterwards married Tone, which lasted for only a month, and then returned to Neal. But when Neal was convicted of involuntary manslaughter for killing his third wife, Gail Evatt, and served six years in prison, his career came to an end. Neal died in 1972 of natural causes, eight months after his release.

Major Steve Ross (Tom Neal) is an ace Army squadron leader pilot, who was born and raised in Japan by his businessman father and speaks a fluent Japanese. He asks his attractive Army nurse girlfriend Abby Drake (Barbara Hale) to marry him, but she can’t because she’s shipping out to the Philippines the next day. Ross later hears that she was killed by the Japanese in Manila. So when he’s called to Washington and asked to volunteer for a dangerous secret undercover assignment that will help shorten the war and save American lives, Ross figures he has nothing to lose anymore and eagerly volunteers for an unusual assignment that asks a lot of him. He’s to go to a Tokyo PoW concentration camp disguised as a battle-fatigued war hero sergeant who is coming home for rest, and has been reassigned to work in the camp. His undercover assignment is to free an American atomic scientist, Lewis Jardine (Cramer), who was captured after his plane crashed. The Japs don’t realize how important a prisoner they have, thinking he’s merely an engineer. But the scientist has in his head the secrets of making an atomic bomb. In order to completely fool the enemy, Ross undergoes an irreversible plastic surgery to make him look Oriental. He’s then smuggled into Tokyo.

Ross is aided by his contact man at the camp, a Korean orderly named Haan-Soo (Keye Luke, he would play in Charlie Chan films). Ross discovers Jardine in the hospital at the camp, as he’s being treated for black fever and has developed malnutrition. There are also two coincidences that should really stretch one’s sense of disbelief: the camp’s head nurse taking care of the American prisoners is none other than Abby Drake and the PoW camp commandant is his college roommate, Colonel Okanura (Loo), a mean-spirited and vindictive person who never forgets a face. Because of his facial make-over, Abby fails to recognize him, though she notices there’s something odd about him. The same goes for Okanura, who thinks he met him before but can’t figure out where.

Warning: Spoiler to follow in the next paragraph.

The potboiler builds up tension. Ross plans Abby’s and Jardine’s escape, while he heroically decides to stay behind to fight off the Japs so they can escape. Ross would rather get killed than have Abby marry someone who looks like a Jap.

Gordon Douglas’ direction is sure-handed. I could see this film being perceived as more powerful when viewed during the war. The film’s end shows actual newsreel footage of nuclear bombings from Pathe.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”