powered by AFI
An immensely popular WWII propaganda movie released in early 1944, The Fighting Seabees tells the story of the formation of the U.S. Navy's Construction Battalion. In the early days off WWII, American construction workers were sent to islands throughout the Pacific Theater to build bases and airstrips. As civilians, however, they were not allowed to carry arms. After significant loss of life they won the right to be enlisted as military personnel so they could defend themselves properly. Their motto was, "We build, we fight."
In The Fighting Seabees, they are a melting-pot group led by John Wayne and Dennis O'Keefe. Wayne is the no-nonsense head of a construction company, frustrated that the Navy won't arm his men, and O'Keefe is a Navy commander who finally convinces Wayne to agree to the lengthy military training necessary for that to happen. Together they return to the Pacific and engage in some truly flag-waving, action-packed combat. Romance is tossed in by means of Susan Hayward as a newspaper correspondent sent to the island; an inevitable love triangle forms.
The screenplay by Borden Chase and Aeneas MacKenzie moves right along - not a surprise given the talent of these two men. MacKenzie, for instance, also wrote the scripts They Died with Their Boots On (1941) and Reign of Terror (1949), while Chase would claim to his credit Red River (1948) and Winchester '73 (1950).
Director Edward Ludwig later said that when the company was in the South Pacific doing location work on The Fighting Seabees, some real servicemen picked fights with Wayne over the fact that he was not serving in the real WWII. It's true that Wayne was of legal draft age and never served, and in light of Wayne's strong and conservative support of patriotism and the military, it became a controversial element of his life. He had been getting draft deferments so he could keep making movies. Originally he was granted 3-A deferments because he had four kids; later that was changed to a 2-A deferment because it was determined to be in the greater national interest for him to be making movies than to be serving in the military. Wayne felt troubled by all this - after all, other actors like William Holden, James Stewart and Henry Fonda all had families and yet were serving. Nonetheless Wayne settled with the knowledge that his movies, and his participation in the USO, helped the war effort in their own way.
Susan Hayward had been under contract to Paramount since 1939 but had been stuck in secondary roles ever since. On loan to Republic Pictures, she finally won the female leads in Hit Parade of 1943 and The Fighting Seabees, after which true stardom came quickly. She would amass five Best Actress Oscar® nominations and win the award once (for I Want to Live!, 1958).
Some more tidbits: The Fighting Seabees is one of only seven movies in which John Wayne dies on screen, and it happens in a blaze of spectacular glory. Character actor Paul Fix, here playing Ding Jacobs, had been a friend of Wayne's since the mid-1930s when he coached Wayne on his screen acting. They would appear in 27 films together. Walter Scharf's score received an Oscar® nomination.
Producer: Albert J. Cohen
Director: Edward Ludwig
Screenplay: Borden Chase, Aeneas MacKenzie
Cinematography: William Bradford
Film Editing: Richard Van Enger
Art Direction: Duncan Cramer
Music: Peter De Rose, Sam Lewis
Cast: John Wayne (Lt. Cmdr. Wedge Donovan), Susan Hayward (Constance Chesley), Dennis O'Keefe (Lt. Cmdr. Robert Yarrow), William Frawley (Eddie Powers), Leonid Kinskey (Johnny Novasky), J.M. Kerrigan (Sawyer Collins).
BW-100m. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold