Wake Island
First screened and reviewed in Summer 1998
Director: John Farrow. Cast: Brian Donlevy, Robert Preston, William Bendix, Albert Dekker, Macdonald Carey, Walter Abel, Mikhail Rasmuny, Rod Cameron, Bill Goodman, Damian O'Flynn, Frank Albertson. Screenplay: W.R. Burnett and Frank Butler.

Twitter Capsule: Compact, ostensibly fact-based reenactment of a famous Pacific campaign, further propelled by charismatic performances.

VOR:   Worthy as entertainment and as document, and symptomatic of studios' important attempts to meld the two, though rarely this deftly.

Photo © 1942 Paramount Pictures

Taking its cue from the military campaign it describes, John Farrow's Wake Island is a brisk, bold, and efficient film chronicling the U.S. Marines' defense of the archipelago from Japanese air-raiders and gunships in December of 1941. Part of the glut of Hollywood films produced during the '40s about key incidents in the American involvement in World War II, Wake Island's screenplay, by W.R. Burnett and Frank Butler, alleges as its source the "official records of the United States Marine Corps." The film also proclaims in a scroll following the opening credits that the dramatization of the Wake Island attacks follow directly from official transcripts.

With such formidable claims to authenticity, Farrow doesn't bother much with subplots or melodrama, though the film is not without its tragic martyrs and its heroic speeches, the latter often occasioned by the deaths of the martyrs. For the most part, Farrow renders the Wake Island campaign fairly straightforwardly, confining all of the action to the island itself except a few opening scenes of the soldiers bidding farewell to family members in Hawaii. The first half-hour of this 90-minute film introduces the expected "types" among the forces—the steadfast commander, the stalwart maintenance chief, the practical jokesters in the company—but the bombings and gunfire are well underway by the film's midpoint.

The different permutations of combat (air-to-air, air-to-sea, man-to-man) are all staged with tension and excitement. Also laudable is Farrow's facility in distinguishing a number of the soldiers as individuals throughout the action. In this errand he is assisted by proficient character actors including William Bendix (Detective Story), Oscar-nominated here during his first year in movies, and The Music Man himself, Robert Preston. Like Farrow, the screenwriters, and the technicians who stage the battles so effectively, these actors helped make Wake Island a commercial and consciousness-raising success when it debuted, as well as a stirring reminder of our military history for contemporary viewers. Grade: B

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Picture
Best Director: John Farrow
Best Supporting Actor: William Bendix
Best Original Screenplay: W.R. Burnett & Frank Butler

Other Awards:
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Director

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