Sunday, March 26, 2006


This was, according to the book "Star Spangled Screen," the first Hollywood movie made about American combat in WWII, and it was based on the actual battle for Wake Island, a small landing strip not far from Pearl Harbor. In fact, the script was begun before the battle ended and was changed to accommodate history (more or less--the movie ends with the Marines fighting the landing Japanese troops to the last man, but in reality, the few left surrendered). It must have been an effective piece of dramatic propaganda in its time, and it set up a model for later combat films such as BATAAN and CORREGIDOR, though the basic plot of a group of soldiers defending a post to the last man goes back at least as far as 1929's THE LOST PATROL. The movie begins in the weeks before Pearl Harbor as we meet two groups of men who have been sent to the island, a band of Marines and a construction crew who are building facilities for planes that land for refueling. The main conflict in this part of the movie has to do with the no-nonsense major in charge (Brian Donlevy) and the head of the civilian workers (Albert Dekker) who rebels against taking orders he thinks will impede the progress of his men. We also get to know a few of the Marines, primarily the hot-headed but good-hearted William Bendix (scheduled to go on furlough back to the States to get married) and his high-spirited buddy Robert Preston. There is also a brave pilot (Macdonald Carey) who is so zen in his attitude, you just know he'll come to no good end, and a corporal named Goebbels who is the brunt of lots of "Heil Hitler" jokes. Of course, as Bendix is ready to leave on the morning of December 7th, news of the attack on Pearl Harbor reaches Wake (foreshadowed by a visit on the island just days earlier by a Japanese diplomat). Though he has a chance to leave, Bendix stays with his buddies, and Donlevy and Dekker patch things up, and all of them gird their loins for the inevitable invasion. Carey gets the news that his wife was killed at Pearl Harbor and he takes on a suicidal one-man mission to bomb a Japanese carrier. Donlevy adopts a holding technique, inspired by the old saying, "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes," that works for a time, but ultimately the film ends with a total slaughter of the Americans. The performances and writing are OK, but characterizations are on the slim side throughout, and the buddy-buddy hijinks between Bendix and Preston (almost unrecognizable with a buzz cut above a very young face) get a little tedious. Also in the cast are Walter Abel as a Marine commander, Damian O'Flynn as a pilot who is strafed by Japanese bullets as he parachutes from his damaged plane, Philip Terry, and Frank Albertson. Worth watching, especially as a look at the beginnings of the WWII combat propaganda film. [TCM]

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