When the United States officially entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hollywood got busy producing morale-boosting entertainments with a heavy accent on flag-waving patriotism and pro-American propaganda. One of the stranger efforts to emerge from this uncertain time in U.S. history was First Yank in Tokyo (1945), a B-movie espionage thriller directed by Gordon Douglas and set inside a Japanese concentration camp.
The outlandish plot follows Major Steve Ross (Tom Neal) as he volunteers for an undercover mission behind enemy lines that requires him to alter his face via plastic surgery in order to pass as a Japanese soldier. The surgeon cautions him, “I feel it is my duty to again warn you that once your features are changed, they can never be changed back.” So why does Ross do it? To gain access to Captain Andrew Kent (Michael St. Angel), a captured American physicist who was working on the formula for the atomic bomb.
It’s no secret that Ross speaks fluent Japanese from residing there in 1936 so he’s clearly the perfect man to infiltrate the concentration camp where Kent is held. Regarding the enemy, Ross tells his superior, “I think I know every kink in their corkscrew psychology, sir.” But there are two developments he didn’t count on – running into his former fiancee Abby (Barbara Hale) at the camp (he thought she was killed in Bataan) and encountering his former Japanese roommate Okaruna (Richard Loo) from college, now an insidiously evil camp commandant.
It turns out that Abby was captured and placed in the camp to tend to the American prisoners. Of course, neither she nor Okaruna recognize Ross in his new identity but there is something so familiar about him that disturbs them both. Oh, we forgot to tell you the most important part. The sinister Okaruna has designs on Abby who is now in love with Kent – all of this being observed by Ross who stands by, waiting for the right moment to spring Kent from the camp.
First Yank in Tokyo has enough plot contrivances for ten films but director Douglas juggles them all so effectively and with such breathless pacing that you rarely have time to consider the implausibility of the basic premise. And the film’s blatant anti-Japanese posturing along with Tom Neal’s crazy slant-eyed makeup, several nutty flashback sequences and unsubtle stock footage inserts provides a measure of politically incorrect fun that should come as a surprise to anyone who was expecting a conventional war drama.
At times, First Yank in Tokyo degenerates into pure camp with dialogue exchanges like the plastic surgeon telling Ross, “You’re as perfect a Jap as we can turn out.” And the film is chock full of ethnic stereotypes with all the Japanese characters depicted as deceitful, sadistic, arrogant and fond of pithy sayings like “Your country is an overripe plum. It will be shaken to the earth by the winds sweeping from Japan.” If nothing else, you have to love the frantic climax which borrows brilliantly and shamelessly from the airport farewell in Casablanca (1942) and the machine-gun fadeout of Bataan (1943).
Interestingly enough, First Yank in Tokyo went through some last minute changes before it was released. The studio wanted to make it more topical, due to recent events, so Captain Kent, the American prisoner, was transformed into a scientist who holds the formula to the atomic bomb thus justifying the final shot of the famous mushroom cloud. The film is also unique in that it makes a reference to the Bataan Death March, a notorious event which was only referenced in one other American war movie, Back to Bataan (1945).
Gordon Douglas would helm several more B-pictures for RKO followed by a short tenure at Columbia Pictures and then graduate to bigger budgets and A-list stars at Warner Bros. where he made such films as Come Fill the Cup (1951) featuring James Cagney, Mara Maru (1952) with Errol Flynn and Young at Heart (1954) starring Frank Sinatra and Doris Day. Some of his assignments at that studio have achieved cult status and include the sci-fi classic Them! (1954), Sincerely Yours (1955) featuring Liberace in a rare dramatic, infamously laughable performance as an egotistical pianist, and The Fiend Who Walked the West (1958) in which the title villain is played by the late Robert Evans, former studio mogul of Paramount in the late sixties.
As for leading man Tom Neal, he would become a film noir icon with his next picture, Edgar J. Ulmer’s Detour (1945). Unfortunately, Neal’s life would become just as hopelessly doomed as the character he played in that poverty row classic through his own reckless behavior. He became tabloid fodder after his notorious affair with actress Barbara Payton which resulted in a public brawl with her husband-to-be Franchot Tone in 1951. Neal sent Tone to the hospital with a broken nose, crushed cheekbone and a concussion. The scandal effectively got Neal blackballed from working at any of the major studios and he ended up making bottom of the barrel indies like Fingerprints Don’t Lie (1951) for Lippert Pictures and other minor distributors. He was soon forced to find another line of work and started his own landscaping company. When that failed, he declared bankruptcy but his troubles increased in 1965 when he was accused of shooting and killing his third wife. The charges were reduced to involuntary manslaughter and he ended up serving six years of a ten year sentence. Shortly after he was released on parole, he died of heart failure at the age of 58.
By the way, First Yank into Tokyo was not the first time Neal had impersonated a Japanese man. In 1943, he played a Cornell University graduate who returns to his native Japan and becomes a sadistic militant in Behind the Rising Sun, Edward Dmytryk’s sensationalistic drama about the mistreatment of American and Chinese prisoners during World War II.
First Yank into Tokyo first appeared on VHS from Warner Home Video in 1990 but it has never been released on DVD or Blu-ray in the U.S. The film has aired on TCM in the past so check their programming schedule regularly for future showings.
*This is a revised and expanded version of an article that previously appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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