What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
This movie is not on my list of essential films.
NOTE: This installment of Sports Analogies Hidden In Classic Movies is being done as part of something called the The 4th Annual Van Johnson Blog-A-Thon hosted by Love Letters To Old Hollywood. Here’s the best part…she’s got a Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn blog-a-thon coming soon, and here I am doing a Spencer Tracy movie for a Van Johnson blog-a-thon. At least I got some Spencer Tracy in since I’m going “Team Hepburn” in that future event.
You can see all the contributions to this blog-a-thon here:
In the days immediately following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, America faced a depressing combination of rage and powerlessness. There was thirst for immediate reprisal, but the ability to do so was rather limited. As such, the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC) and the United States Navy (USN) devised a plan to strike mainland Japan. The top-secret strategy is to launch a raid operating the B-25 Mitchell medium bombers from the deck of a Navy aircraft carrier. At first, there are heavy doubts as to whether it can even be done, but Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle (played by Spencer Tracy) is charged with finding out.
Doolittle then assembles a fleet of 24 B-25s at Eglin Air Field, Florida with all-volunteer crews for a three-month-long exercise. One such crew is led by Captain Ted Lawson (played by Van Johnson); the rest of the crew consists of the co-pilot Lieutenant Dean Davenport (played by Tim Murdock), the navigator Lieutenant Charles McClure (played by Don DeFore), the bombardier Lieutenant Bob Clever (played by Herbert Gunn, but credited as Gordon McDonald), and the gunner Corporal David Thatcher (played by Robert Walker).
Once all the crews are assembled, Doolittle advises them this is a top-secret program and offers them the opportunity to opt out, particularly if they have wives and families. Even though Captain Lawson and his wife are expecting, they both show a steely resolve. In no time at all, the dangerous nature of the mission is driven home in the most unmistakable manner. They aren’t told why, but the crews find themselves doing things that don’t even seem possible, like getting a 15-ton airplane off the ground in less than 500 feet.
Some crew members have their hunches as to what this is all about, but they keep mum. Then one early morning Doolittle sends them on a flight training them to operate at tree-top height. The mission ends at California’s Alameda Naval Air Station, where the aircraft are loaded aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet. This is when Doolittle reveals the objective of the mission; to bomb mainland Japan by launching the bombers from the Hornet.
The plan is to sail the Hornet to within 400 miles of mainland Japan, where the targets will be the cities of Tokyo, Yokohama, Osaka, Kobe, and Nagoya. The problem is these aircraft are not capable of landing back aboard the Hornet; the B-25s and their crews will have to continue westward to areas in eastern China around Chungking which are controlled by Chang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist forces. However, this also offers the chance the crews could be shot down over Japan or intercepted by Japanese fighters along the way or after completing their mission.
To make matters worse, enemy ships spot the Hornet well before they get to the intended launching point. The bombers are forced to take flight 12 hours earlier than they had planned, which means it will be daylight when the bombers are over their targets in Japan, making it far easier for them to be spotted by enemy anti-aircraft guns. It also means it they will reach their unprepared and unlit landing strips in China after nightfall. Topping it all off, an earlier than anticipated launch means they will be precariously low on fuel when they reach China.
Doolittle pilots the lead bomber; his crew drops incendiary bombs marking key targets. From this point, the movie really centers on the exploits of Lawson and his crew, They make their bomb run amid heavy anti-aircraft fire. Lawson’s drew survives, but now they are faced with the challenge of making it to China. When they get there, Lawson’s B-25 is painfully low on fuel, it’s nighttime, and it’s pouring rain.
Ending up short of the beach, Lawson crash-lands in the water as near to shore as he can get. Every member of the crew save for Corporal Thatcher is badly injured. Lawson’s left leg is so badly damaged he will undergo a hap-hazard amputation. Since they are well outside of the intended landing zone, they are reliant on friendly Chinese partisans to escort them through a gauntlet of Japanese-occupied territory to eventual safety.
The Hidden Sports Analogy:
If you’ve ever watched an American football game, you know they all start with the “kick-off.” Being on the kick/punt coverage team is an exercise in a one-way sprint right into the most dangerous part of the game. The kick-off is six seconds of pure savagery complete with 11 250-pound men clad in 25 more worth of armor plating charging headlong into 11 others intent on inflicting the maximum damage possible.
That begs the question…what sort of person volunteers for such duty? I’ll tell you. It’s not “brave” guys; it’s guys who think they are indestructible. It’s not “confident” guys; it’s guys who have spines made from drop-forged steel. It’s not “smart” guys; it’s those who believe they know how to fly around the bullets.
For another Van Johnson blog-a-thon, I made the comparison for his “Steve Maryk” from “The Caine Mutiny” as a National Football League (NFL) back-up quarterback. The logic works like this:
“…Remember, this is the heart of the “Studio” era in Hollywood, when actors were for the most part under contract to a particular studio. Columbia had a formidable stable, but no one who really fit the role. William Holden was fresh off an Oscar win for “Stalag 17,” but the studio “suits” thought he might steal the movie from Bogart, and he might make Maryk an unlikable hero like J.J. Sefton (the subject of another blog-a-thon effort). Marlon Brando was also signed with Columbia, but he was already committed to making “On The Waterfront” and let’s be honest…even the biggest Brando-phile would have trouble buying him as Maryk. That’s why like a football team making a trade, Columbia obtained the services of Van Johnson on loan from MGM.
In other words, what Columbia needed was a “Star”quality actor, but one who was also willing to let everybody else have the glory; one who could live with expectations slimmed down to “just do your job and don’t screw up.”
There may not be a better description of Van Johnson, but do you know about whom that also could be said? An NFL back-up quarterback.”
But it’s in “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” where we see Van Johnson could be more than just a back-up quarterback. Van Johnson could do it all. Just go look at the other contributions in this or any other of Love Letters To Old Hollywood’s Van Johnson’s blog-a-thons. Need a “song and dance” man? Van’s got you covered. How about a war movie hero? Van’s been there and done that. Light comedy? Romance? Guest spot on a television series? You name it; Van Johnson could do it. I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody unearthed a screen test of Johnson auditioning to fight Bruce Lee in one of those “Kung Fu” flicks.
When one looks at a football team, it’s easy to see the stars. But the real fans notice the guys who aren’t the headliners; the guys willing to do what ever it takes to get the job done. Van Johnson ranks high on my list of favorite actors, but you will notice that in none of my three favorite Van Johnson roles (including this one) does he get top billing. Be it the movies or on the gridiron, every “hero” has the guy who shoulders a load for him.
In other words, I had previously compared Van Johnson to a back-up quarterback, but upon further review, I’ve narrowed that to a specific one; Taysom Hill of the New Orleans Saints. Not only does he do the duty of back-up quarterback, he’ll take on any role the team needs.
Need a guy to toss a 40-yard touchdown strike? Hill can do that. He can also be on the receiving end of such a heave. Or if you’re already close to “paydirt,” Hill has the shoulders to be a battering ram from the 2-yard line. That “Van Johnson”-level of versatility earned Hill the nickname “The Swiss Army Knife” because he can be the tool for any job.
But how Taysom Hill made an NFL roster was by volunteering for the “suicide squad”…also known as the kick-off coverage team. Hill was never drafted coming out of Brigham Young University in 2017. He entered camp with the Green Bay Packers, but proved to be little more than a “camp arm;” a quarterback used for little more than throwing training balls to receivers. Hill didn’t make the final cut with the Packers, but the day after they waived him, he was signed by the New Orleans Saints.
Hill was originally listed listed as the third-string quarterback, but he got on the field as part of the kick team…his ability to handle the ball, his foot speed, and his 6’3, 235-pound frame made him interesting as a kick returner…the guy who catches the ball and thinks he can run around 11 250-pound bullets gunning for him.
In his second game as a Saint, Hill returned his first kick for 47 yards. The next week Hill put on his first “Van Johnson”-type display of versatility. In a single game playing on special teams, Hill returned three kicks for 64 yards, made a tackle on a punt, and rushed three times for almost 40 yards.. that was when he wasn’t lining up as a blocking tight end on offense.
The bottom line is Hill found his way onto an NFL roster by being the guy willing to “shoulder the load.” There’s an old saying in the sports world about the best ability to have is “avail-ability.” More than once I’ve said that sports coaches and movies directors share many traits: both of them love the guys who invariably say “Yeah, I can do that.”
In other words, the same guys who volunteer to rocket off the deck off an aircraft carrier not knowing if they can even get into the air to fly over a nation full off people who want to hack them apart with samurai swords while having no certainty of a safe return are the same as those tho charge into a maelstrom off helmets and shoulder pads with every chance of being separated from their consciousness.
It’s easy to see football players as “tough guys.” But whoever said a “light comedy song-and-dance man” can’t be a “bad-ass” never told Van Johnson.
The Moral of the Story:
“The key ingredient to stardom is the rest of the team” ~ legendary basketball coach John Wooden.
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Very interesting. An analogy I can totally get behind. (Not that I don’t always, but this is more clear to me.)
Everything you said about Van is so spot-on. I’m constantly amazed at his versatility, especially since he doesn’t often get the recognition for his acting that he deserves. His talent at playing a war hero and a romantic leading man are on full display in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, especially in the last third.
Thanks for writing this excellent post for my event!
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