I must have seen this one when I was a kid, but that would have been as a re-run, since it came out in 1943. I watched it just now on Amazon Prime Video, where I obtained these screen shots. Details are from Wikipedia. It’s Gung Ho!, with the exclamation point, and it’s one of many morale-stirring clips put out during the war to juice up patriotism. It’s the straight war film formula of the time—America has been attacked. Americans respond to the call to arms. American troops engage the enemy, who is always depicted as savage and wicked, besides. American force of arms prevails. America is going to win this war.
This is based on an actual combat engagement that was launched in conjunction with the Guadalcanal Campaign, the first land offensive executed by the United States in the war. The raid was on Makin Island, part of the Gilbert Islands group. In real life Evans Fordyce Carlson was a Marine officer who rose through the ranks and later went to China as a civilian to observe combat against the Japanese invaders. Back in the Corps, he commanded the Second Marine Raider Battalion and led the Makin raid.
When the Marines solicit volunteers for an extremely dangerous mission, they are naturally overwhelmed with applicants. Here an applicant is being grilled to make sure he is not completely off his rocker.
I’m not going to detail the plot, which does not follow the actual events. Here the men undergo intense physical training. They especially receive training in close combat. They are expected to go hand-to-hand with the Japanese.
As in the actual raid, the better part of a Marine company is landed at night by two submarine craft. There follows the standard formula of these island campaign movies. It takes a few Marines getting shot before they realize there are snipers in the tops of all those palm trees.
And it does get hand-to-hand. No quarter is given. It’s knives and bayonets and gun butts. And, yes, the Japanese are exposed as unscrupulous. There is the stock scene, true to life, of Japanese soldiers pretending to surrender in order to take a few more of the enemy with them before they die. After the first few days of land warfare with the Japanese Army in 1942 American soldiers quit taking prisoners.
Definitely not out of real life, the Marines paint a giant American flag on top of a building. Later, when Japanese attack planes approach, the Marines pull back into the jungle and let the Japanese forces move into the area. You guessed it. The Japanese planes bomb and strafe their own troops.
All accounts of the actual raid paint it as a total failure, with many of the attacking force killed in fighting, many more unable to evacuate, later captured and executed by the Japanese. However, the movie finishes with Randolph Scott telling the survivors what a great thing they accomplished.
Carlson’s name was not used in the movie, but he did come back to California to advise in the production, this after finishing up with additional heroics on Guadalcanal. Filming took place in San Diego and at nearby Camp Pendleton with Marines, including some from the actual raid, working as extras. One of the participants was James Roosevelt, son of the president. He was Carlson’s executive officer.
Robert Mitchum’s career was just getting started when he portrayed a Marine private in this film. The following year he was a bomber crewman in Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, and in 1945 he got killed as Captain Bill Walker in The Story of G.I. Joe.
Noah Beery, nephew of Wallace Beery, played a Marine corporal here. You previously saw him in Rocketship X-M, and later in life he featured in The Rockford Files. I recall him as the father of Little Fauss in Little Fauss and Big Halsy. I really need to get a copy of that and review it.
I watched this for free on Amazon, but I still have to complain about the quality of this print. It’s possible the original was pristine but has not been well preserved. Thank God (what am I saying?) for the digital age, which now allows cinematic works of art—not that this is one—to be kept for as long as civilization perseveres.
Carlson survived the war, but died in 1947. There is one thing that will live on, and that’s “gung ho.” In Chinese it roughly translates as “work in harmony,” but its popular usage translates to “overly enthusiastic,” possibly due to films like this one.