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Not many combat movies were produced during the first two years of World War II. The war was not going well for the Allies, and Hollywood was proceeding cautiously. Wake Island, released on Sept. 2, 1942, was the first A-level production that can be classified at least partially as a "World War II combat film," a new movie genre that emerged from WWI movies and 1930s military service pictures.
In fact, as film historian Jeanine Basinger has pointed out, Wake Island itself begins as an old-style 1930s military film, only to become a WWII combat film partway through, when Pearl Harbor is bombed and the men of Wake Island soon find themselves attacked as well. "When the men fight back - and fight they do - the kernel of the combat films which would appear in 1943 can be seen." These films would establish their own new story patterns involving a hero, an ethnically mixed group and a combat objective, and they would feature new iconography unique to the situations of the Second World War. The WWII combat genre would establish itself so firmly in Hollywood and American culture that it is still the structural basis for modern-day combat films, whatever the war. Wake Island presents an inkling of what was soon to come, with its group of soldiers banding together, even though in this case they are doomed. And movie audiences of the day knew it. Wake Island was the first WWII movie to be based on an actual battle - one which America lost.
Wake Island was being used by the U.S. as a refueling station, and after being bombed, Japanese battleships and Marines soon arrived. In a ferocious battle that raged for over two weeks, about 120 Americans lost their lives, while 1500 more ultimately surrendered and spent the war years in prison camps. 800 Japanese were killed in the battle.
The movie, however, spins a slightly different version of the truth: the Americans, led by Brian Donlevy, all fight to their deaths. Hollywood, then (not to mention the Navy Department, which supervised production), found propaganda value in treating this military defeat as a moral victory. In the story of a gallant last stand, Americans could find patriotism and inspiration. The message of Wake Island, Jeanine Basinger has written, is that "we may be losers, but we never give up - and losers who never give up will finally win." Homefront audiences ate it up. The picture was an enormous commercial and critical hit and received four Oscar® nominations, for Best Picture, Best Director (John Farrow), Best Screenplay (W.R. Burnett and Frank Butler), and Best Supporting Actor (William Bendix).
Seen today, Wake Island is perhaps more interesting as a cultural artifact than as an exceptional movie, though it's packed with rousing action sequences. As Basinger put it, "Wake Island, from today's perspective, is flawed by a lack of character development...[But] at the time, audiences knew the situation and its deaths first-hand. They probably fleshed out the characters themselves with people they knew and loved. They brought characterization into the theater with them."
The production shot in the spring and early summer of 1942, primarily at the Salton Sea in the southern Californian desert. There were many delays due to wind storms. The set included a runway designed by the same engineer who built the actual runway at the real Wake Island. After filming, it was taken over by the Navy.
Director John Farrow was Australian by birth and attended the Royal Naval Academy in England, where he earned a lifelong officer's commission. In the 1920s and 1930s he worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter, turning to directing in 1937. Back in England when war broke out, he served as Lt. Commander in the Royal Navy, only to be injured. He then returned to Hollywood, where he immediately made Wake Island. While he didn't win an Academy Award this time around, he would win one several years later as one of the screenwriters of Around the World in 80 Days (1956). He and his wife Maureen O'Sullivan had seven kids, including Mia Farrow.
Producer: Joseph Sistrom
Director: John Farrow
Screenplay: W.R. Burnett, Frank Butler
Cinematography: William C. Mellor, Theodor Sparkuhl
Film Editing: Frank Bracht, LeRoy Stone
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, A. Earl Hedrick
Music: David Buttolph
Cast: Brian Donlevy (Maj. Geoffrey Caton), Robert Preston (Pvt. Joe Doyle), Macdonald Carey (Lt. Bruce Cameron), Albert Dekker (Shad McClosky), Barbara Britton (Sally Cameron), William Bendix (Pvt. Aloysius Randall).
by Jeremy Arnold