An assemble-the-team combat adventure that predates The Dirty Dozen by a year, Ambush Bay (1966) unfolds as a flashback narrative told from the viewpoint of Private First Class James Grenier (James Mitchum), the platoon's radio operator and the only inexperienced member of the group. Japanese snipers, deadly booby traps and suicidal acts of heroism drastically reduce their number until only two men are left to complete the mission which includes detonating the submerged mines around the island.
Filmed on location in the Philippines, Ambush Bay is a realistic and tautly directed war picture that benefits greatly from the no-nonsense screenplay by Marve Feinberg and Ib Melchior; the latter is better known for his sci-fi effects (Robinson Crusoe on Mars (1964), Death Race 2000, 1975). Hugh O'Brian is the true star of the film and gives one of his best performances as the grimly determined Sergeant Steve Corey. It was a role not far removed from the actor's own experiences; he joined the Marines at the age of 18 and became one of the youngest drill instructors in its history.
In a key supporting role, Mickey Rooney is also surprisingly effective, abandoning most of his hyperactive mannerisms in favor of a low-key cynicism. At this point in his career, the former MGM superstar was having trouble finding starring roles or quality films. How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, made the previous year, was a particular low point for him and his private life wasn't much better.
In his autobiography, Life is Too Short, Rooney stated that he preferred working on the stage "but [agent] Bullets Durgom kept getting me work in pictures. Next job: Ambush Bay, to be shot in the Philippines, the one trip in my life I wish I'd never taken. Barbara [Rooney's wife] herself wanted to drive me to the airport the day I left LA for Manila. Milos [an actor friend of the couple] was at the house. He came up to wish me luck. I shook his hand and said, "Take good care of my wife while I'm gone." He smiled and assured me he would...Well, Milos did take care of Barbara...He spent most of his nights with Barbara, and, by the time I returned at the end of November, they were in the middle of a very torrid love affair. I had hated my time in the Philippines. The plot of Ambush Bay had us hacking our way through the worst kind of jungles on the island, fighting mosquitoes and drinking the local water." Yet, despite Rooney's unpleasant memories of the film, it earned good reviews, particularly his performance. Variety wrote that "Mickey Rooney turns in another of his top enactments" and The New York Times reported that Ambush Bay was "a trim, muscular, pint-sized package as sensible as it is modest, that makes a little count a lot." It also added that "the picture has excellent performances by Hugh O'Brian, Mickey Rooney and lovely Tisa Chang."
Producer: Hal Klein, Aubrey Schenck
Director: Ron Winston
Screenplay: Marve Feinberg, Ib Melchior
Special Effects: Charles Schulthies
Cinematography: Emmanuel I. Rojas
Film Editing: John F. Schreyer
Original Music: Dick LaSalle
Cast: Hugh O'Brian (1st Sergeant Steve Corey), Mickey Rooney (Sgt. Ernest Wartell), James Mitchum (Pvt. James Grenier), Peter Masterson (Sgt. William Maccone), Harry Lauter (Cpl. Alvin Ross), Tisa Chang (Miyazaki), Gregg Amsterdam (Corporal Stanley Parrish). C-110m. Letterboxed.
by Jeff Stafford