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William A. Wellman
In November 1941, Major Caton takes command of the small Marine garrison on Wake Island. His tendency toward spit and polish upsets the men's tropical lassitude, but Pearl Harbor changes everything. Soon the island is attacked and the Marines pull together day by day; but how long can they hold out? Written by
Rod Crawford <email@example.com>
Three plots are going on simultaneously in this movie. (1) The conflict between the Marines manning the small garrison at Wake Island and the no-nonsense Pan American construction crew preparing a berth for the Pan Am clipper. (2) The horseplay and bonding between Robert Preston (who must have had one of the longest careers as a supporting actor in Hollywood) and William Bendix as the Marine enlisted man who wants to unenlist so he can marry the delectable Myrtle. (3) Then there are all the Americans fighting against overwhelming Japanese naval and air forces.
This was one of the first war movies ground out after Pearl Harbor but it doesn't look especially hastily done. The Salton Sea location gives a good imitation of a flat, sandy Pacific island, which is pretty much what Wake Island was. The garrison was so tiny that only 47 enlisted men were available. The Marines and the Navy pilots fly F4F Wildcats, and this was crucial to the defense of the island. Most of them were destroyed on the ground or in accidents. But the few fighters available and the handful of relatively small caliber coastal defense guns inflicted serious damage on the first Japanese fleet, mostly by lying low until the invasion force was well within range. A second invasion attempt succeeded, after all the Wildcats were destroyed. The commander surrendered, along with the few survivors; they didn't sacrifice themselves to the last man as shown in the film. (What would that have accomplished?) But the movie was a great morale raiser at a time when the country desperately needed some morale raising.
The conflict in goals and styles between the Marines (all discipline and training) and the construction men (shabby, rough-and-ready improvisers) is, I suppose, designed to teach us that we all have to work together now that war is upon us. It's rather clumsily done. Albert Dekker as the construction boss is unnecessarily nasty and contemptuous, and Brian Donlevy as the commander of the Marine forces is the soul of patience and reason. The subplot gets the job done but it's something like having your kindergarten teacher beat the letters of the alphabet into you.
I rather liked the comedy relief provided by Preston and Bendix. Preston keeps trying to talk Bendix into reenlisting in the Corps but Bendix is determined to become a married civilian. Extolling Marine Corps life, Preston urges Bendix to close his eyes and think of what he REALLY wants. "All I see is Moitle," Bendix says. "No, no, no. Forget Myrtle. Close your eyes and put your hand over them and think -- now what do you really SEE?" Replies Bendix, "Nope. It's still Moitle." This is the kind of friendship you see only in the movies. They fall into fist fights at the drop of an insult, but are willing to sacrifice their lives for one another.
It is a bit tedious in parts. But the end, some hyperdramatic touches aside, sticks pretty close to the historical facts. No, we didn't mount a successful defense of Wake Island. How could we, with so few supplies and men? But, like Pearl Harbor, it was the kind of defeat that could almost be depicted as a victory, both honorable and inevitable.
And check out the cast! So many faces that were later to become so familiar, many of them uncredited. Dane Clark, James Brown.
It's worth watching, though there is little about it that's gripping. The photography is notable -- crisp, clear, sunny black and white, with the sun scintillating on the surface of the sea. And the war scenes are unusually well done for such an early example of the genre.
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