WAKE ISLAND —as the Imperial Japanese juggernaut rolled over everything in the Pacific following Pearl Harbor, the only ray of hope for stunned Americans flickered from the tiny isle of Wake, 4386 miles toward the setting/Rising sun from San Francisco.
For two weeks,pounded by air and sea, 450 Marines fought off a vastly outnumbering invasion force until they fell in Alamo-evoking glory. When this 1942 film came out, the full story was as yet unknown (43 months of captivity ordeal), but in outline and spirit it did a rousing job of imagining the desperate fight, which had been relayed only by scattered communiques from the island. In fact, Paramount started laying ground for the production of this movie even before the siege ended.
Hard-nosed (often sadistic) director John Farrow and writers W.R. Burnett & Frank Butler didn’t lay on the corn and racial animus quite as thick as following “wipe ’em out” movies did, and get sturdy work from the cast. Brian Donlevy completed his career switch from villain to hero with his solid job as the commander, and the friendly roughhousing of pals William Bendix and Robert Preston struck chords with critics and audiences. It took in $7,700,000, the eighth biggest hit of the year, and was Oscar nominated for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Bendix) and Screenplay.
Bendix, 36, had just started his career (his 5th film) and this notched him straight into two decades of dependable feature work (and great TV success via The Life Of Riley); his barrel-chested, lantern-jawed, broken-nosed visage suitable for hero’s pal or hulking thug while an inimitable voice did much to endear the nation to ‘Brooklynese’ (though he hailed from rival Manhattan). Preston, eight years younger at 24, was well on his way to a similar career alternating good guys with bad, and seeing such decent and familiar types come under the samurai swords of a merciless foe roused audiences to a fever pitch (as intended).
The script is snappy and apart from some dated miniatures of ship models, the battle scenes are generally excellent: you get a reasonable armchair approximation of being pulverized during the bombardment scenes as Farrow didn’t stint on gunpowder in the $826,000 budget.
A fast 78 minutes, with MacDonald Carey, Albert Dekker, Rod Cameron, Mikhail Rasumny, Bill Goodwin, Walter Able, Philip Van Zandt, Richard Loo (the go-to Chinese-American stand-in for evil from Japan) and Dane Clark. Unbilled are two future beloved TV dads—Leave It To Beaver‘s Hugh Beaumont and ‘Dobie Gillis‘ Frank Faylen (racking a delirious 19 credits that year), and likewise uncredited in bit parts are two 21-year-old hopefuls who would similarly find lasting TV glory— Alan Hale Jr. and Chuck Connors.
I’m voting for FDR.