Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Battle for Breakfast

Film: Wake Island
Format: DVD from Princeton Public Library through interlibrary loan on rockin’ flatscreen.

I’ve written before about the fact that I grew up on war movies. As a kid, it was absolutely my preferred genre. When I find an old black-and-white World War II movie, especially one made during the war specifically as a propaganda film, I always get a feeling of nostalgia. So when Wake Island showed up, I was naturally excited. Despite having seen a ton of these in my youth, I was pretty sure I hadn’t seen this one before (and I hadn’t). More interesting to me is that this is a film released in mid-1942 about a lost battle in the Pacific in the weeks after Pearl Harbor. It may not be the first World War II propaganda film made, but it’s likely the first really major one.

Except for the opening at Pearl Harbor, the bulk of the action takes place on Wake Island, located in the middle of the Pacific and used essentially as a way station for ships and airplanes between Hawaii and the Asian mainland. Because of its location, Wake had strategic value and the island was manned by a few hundred marines and a larger collection of contractors working to get the island into fighting shape. We start in the days before Pearl Harbor with the appointment of Major Caton (Brian Donlevy) to head the battalion. Going with Caton is Shad McClosky (Albert Dekker), who will be heading up the civilian crew building all of the necessary structures and defenses on the island.

Not long after Caton arrives and starts enforcing discipline, particularly in the pugnacious Joe Doyle (Robert Preston) and the only-in-a-movie named Aloysius K. “Smacksie” Randall (William Bendix, who was nominated for a supporting role), Pearl Harbor is attacked. Smacksie is ready to rotate out of the service, but when the attack happens, he’s essentially re-enlisted and stuck on Wake with the rest of the men. Caton and pretty much everyone else knows what’s going to happen next. Wake is too strategic a location to be ignored, which means the might of the Japanese military forces will soon be focused on Wake with its small compliment of troops and smaller contingent of airplanes.

There is a sense of doomed inevitability in what follows. The men on Wake know that there is no chance of them getting out alive. Wake’s remote location and the destruction of the American fleet has left them abandoned in the middle of the Pacific. And so the men do all they can to shore up their defenses, digging trenches, moving and hiding shore batteries, and planning for the inevitable assault that takes up the latter part of the film.

A film like Wake Island needs to be given some license in places. While not specifically made on the cheap, there are certainly some cuts that were made and some compromises necessary to getting this film made. That means that we’re in for a good deal of stock footage and repeated stock footage. The same shot of ship guns firing appears at least a dozen times. There’s plenty of stock footage in the aerial battles as well, and here we need to give even more license to the filmmakers. Director John Farrow was limited by what he had available, which is why Japanese Zeros turn into biplanes when they are being shot down.

So yes, there are some real limitations here, even if those limitations are understandable. There more than likely wasn’t a lot of stock footage of Zeros being shot down available in 1942, or even of single-wing aircraft going down in a fiery blaze. I get that, but it’s also the sort of thing that quickly pulls me out of the film. When this happens, I start to wonder exactly how much license I should give the film and how much I should be disappointed in something that comes across as so slipshod.

Since Wake Island is a propaganda film, there are also some standard tropes that will appear. The goofily-named Marine who has a penchant for getting into trouble and fights is a stock character, particularly when the role is given to someone like William Bendix. That this marine is the type who gets in trouble, and is also the type who shows a soft spot for something (a dog in this case), and also eventually earns the respect of his commander is also par for th course. By the time the film is over and Japan has conquered Wake, all of the scores are settled and the Marines are dying as brothers in arms.

Ultimately, Wake Island is more a curiosity than anything else. As an early entrant into World War II combat propaganda, it’s a rough draft for a lot of films that followed it over the next few years. Many of those films may have ended up doing it better, but only Wake Island can say it went there first, or at least close to first.

Why to watch Wake Island: A great example of early World War II propaganda.
Why not to watch: Stock footage use is uneven at best.


  1. I just watched this one. I didn't really care for it. The hijinks of the two privates was eye-rolling and it took up too much of the film. And yes, the planes suddenly turning into crop dusters to show "smoke" coming out of them was very distracting. Finally, they also completed changed history by having the Marines fight to the last man instead of surrendering after the first attack, which is what happened in real life. The movie is basically The Alamo in the middle of the Pacific.

    1. I understand the change in history here--this is a propaganda film, and you don't want to show our boys throwing in the towel the minute things get difficult. It's one of those weird truths that the folks at home would rather see everyone die than see them act to save themselves.

      This barely scraped a three-star review from me on Letterboxd, which is the lowest possible score for a film I claim to have liked. This is not one I'd watch again.