Cast & Crew
In June 1941, 4,254 air miles from San Francisco, Wake Island is taken over by two units of the Marine Corps: the Marine Fighting Squadron #211 of the Marine Aircraft Group 21, and the Wake Detachment of the First Defense Battalion. By the end of October, the defense outpost has been equipped with naval guns, twelve mobile 3-inch anti-aircraft guns, a squadron of twelve Fruehman F4F3 "Wildcats," and 385 officers and men. Major Geoffrey Caton reports as the new comanding officer and civilian Shad McCloskey, who accords no special respect for the military, arrives at the island to supervise the construction of bomb shelters. Despite a variety of nationalities among the officers and men, a deep sense of camaraderie exists. On 7 Dec 1941, after he has visited Wake Island with talk of peace, a special Japanese envoy goes to Washington, D.C. to discuss problems in the Pacific. That same morning, however, the Japanese make a surprise air attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, during which thousands of American lives are lost and battleships are destroyed. Wake Island is subsequently attacked by the same Japanese forces and sends four planes to combat twenty-four Japanese fighters. After several losses, the Japanese return home, but Wake Island is left with many wounded and dead and seven planes destroyed. After the attack, a Clipper airship returns the remaining civilians stateside. The crisis creates an understanding between Caton and McCloskey, who accepts orders from Caton to dig trenches all over the island. After Caton is forced to tell pilot Cameron that his wife was killed at Pearl Harbor, he urges the distraught man to put all his energy into fighting "to destroy destruction." When Japanese battleships encroach upon the island, Caton withholds fire to lure the ships into close range so that the island's big guns can sink or disable several ships. Cameron volunteers to fly solo and makes a direct hit on another battleship that is approaching. He is then shot at by Japanese planes, and barely manages to land safely at Wake Island before dying. He is buried on Wake Island. The Japanese, now based on nearby Marshall and Gilbert islands, mercilessly barrage Wake Island. After five days and an eighth attack, the U.S. forces still hold the island, and on 21 December 1941, Caton sends some of the men home for Christmas on a transport plane during a momentary lull in the fighting. Sensing that the end may be near for his outpost, Caton also sends with one of the returning men a full report to command and a personal letter to his daughter. After Wake Island's sole remaining pilot is shot down and the ammunition depot is destroyed, the Japanese demand the surrender of the Wake Island troops. Caton refuses to give in, and on 23 December 1941, the Marines fight valiantly to their deaths, as the Japanese overtake the island.
Philip Van Zandt
Earle Tex Harris
James B. Leong
Pete G. Katchenaro
James A. Millican
Alan Hale Jr.
John L. Bennett
O. S. Bryhn
Albert F. Burks
W. R. Burnett
Charles Earl Cantor
A. D. Cook
L. R. Davidson
Brig. Gen. Robert L. Denig Usmc
B. G. Desylva
Dr. John O. Eiler
Lieutenant Colonel W. G. Farrell Usmc
John Morris Foster
Lieutenant Colonel John Hart Usmc
James W. Hoffman
Lieutenant General Thomas Holcomb Usmc
Edward S. Lamber
Frank Lindsay Jr.
L. D. Mcknight
William C. Mellor
A. M. Morrison
Lieutenant Colonel Francis E. Pierce Usmc
Captain Nicholas Presecans Usmc
Mike Semana Rio
Charles W. Robbins
Major General Ross E. Ronell Usmc
Ralph E. Shenk
Oliver C. Stratton
Henry T. R. Webb
Frank B. Wolf
H. F. Woodward
Best Supporting Actor
Best Writing, Screenplay
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
Paramount began work on this movie before the real life battle for Wake Island was over.
The opening credits note that W. R. Burnett and Frank Butler's screenplay was based on official records of the United States Marine Corps. The film opens with the following written foreword: "In this picture the action at Wake Island has been recorded as accurately and factually as possible. However, the names of the characters are fictional and any similarity to the personal characteristics of the officers and men of the detachment is not intended. America and Americans have long been used to victory but the great names of her military history-Valley Forge-Custer's Last Stand-The Lost Battalion-represent the dark hours. There, small groups of men fought savagely to the death because in dying they gave eternal life to the ideas for which they died. Such a group was Marine Fighting Squadron 211 of Marine Aircraft Group 21 and the Wake Detachment of the First Defense Battalion, United States Marine Corps, the units which comprised the garrison at Wake Island." Wake Island is considered by many modern film historians to be the first film about World War II to deal factually with the grim realities of battle, and also was the first to be produced with the supervision of the War Department. According to modern sources, Paramount held up production on the closing sequence of the film to see if United States forces could recapture Wake Island. As depicted in the film, Wake Island fell to the Japanese on December 23, 1941 when, after having defended the island against Japanese attack since December 7, 1941, the Marines were battered by a full scale attack. Although the film shows the Marines fighting to their deaths, U.S. forces did, in fact, surrender to the Japanese. Modern historical sources note that the Marines killed over 800 Japanese soldiers, while 120 Americans lost their lives and 1,500 were taken prisoner. After the fall of Wake Island, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt hailed the Marines for their "heroic and historic defense."
The script received the official approval of the Marine Corps and the Navy department in Washington, D.C., and production was supervised by the U.S. Navy. Pre-production Hollywood Reporter news items reported that Fred MacMurray, William Holden, Lynne Overman, Buck Jones, Richard Denning and Richard Arlen were initially cast in the film. Wake Island was shot primarily on location in and around Salton Sea, in Imperial Valley, CA. Information in the Paramount Collection indicates that the production encountered many delays due to severe weather conditions, such as wind and sandstorms. An additional $16,000 was added to the cost of location shooting because the company had to grade areas at the location. According to Paramount press information, the actual Wake Island encampment was recreated for the production, including a runway designed by the same engineer who built the runway at Wake Island. Hollywood Reporter news items indicate that the air field was turned over to the Navy for military use after production ended.
Some scenes were also shot on location in San Diego, CA and Salt Lake City, UT. Hollywood Reporter news items reported that on April 27, 1942, when air scenes of Japanese attack planes were filmed over the Great Salt Lake, UT, citizens were notified through the media that any planes with "Rising Sun" insignias were prop planes and not real Japanese fighter planes. The planes for this scene were manufactured by Ryan Aeronautical Corp. of San Diego, CA, and were used because they resembled the Japanese Nakajima 97, which was reportedly the type of plane used to attack Wake Island. Extras portraying Japanese soldiers were played by Filipino and Chinese actors, as in early 1942, the U.S. government required the detention in internment camps of all Japanese and Japanese-American citizens. Because of the newly initiated military draft, Paramount had to arrange for many of its staff and crew to enlist at a draft board while on location. The original story, written by an unidentified Paramount staff member, was purchased for one dollar. The film's final cost was $826,061.18, approximately $175,000.00 over budget.
Wake Island was previewed in August 1942 at the Marine Corps Bases in Quantico, VA, and Camp Elliott in San Diego, CA. The film had its premiere in two theaters in Los Angeles. At one theater, forty Marine recruits were sworn into service onstage. Proceeds from the New York premiere went to the U.S. Marine Corps Fund. The film was voted one of the Ten Best of 1942 by Film Daily and was nominated for Academy Awards in the following categories: Best Picture; Best Supporting Actor, William Bendix; Best Direction, John Farrow; and Best Writing (Original Screenplay), W. R. Burnett and Frank Butler. Brian Donlevy and Robert Preston reprised their roles in a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast of the story on October 26, 1942.