JOHN FARROW FOR WAKE ISLAND (1942)
The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)
William Wyler for Mrs. Miniver
Michael Curtiz for Yankee Doodle Dandy
Mervyn LeRoy for Random Harvest
Sam Wood for King’s Row
NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.
The first of two World War II dramas I watched last night was startling in its immediacy. Released eight months after Pearl Harbor, John Farrow’s vivid recreation of crushing military defeat was the first full-fledged combat film to emerge during the war, leading a charge of productions that would dominate theaters for several years to come. John Farrow’s realization of the siege and conquest itself portrays the faraway conflict with a close-to-home thrill, while W.R. Burnett and Frank Butler’s screenplay, written under the auspices of the US Marine Corps and the freshly established Hollywood Branch of the Office of War Information, recasts the naval outpost’s surrender to Japanese forces as a heroic last stand. Hitting theaters in the middle of 1942, amid a cascade of setbacks in the American and Allied war effort, Wake Island strikes a powerful minor chord to commence Hollywood’s dramatization of the struggle, framing the story in a somber resolution to fight on.
The film is framed in the iconography of noble defeat, opening to the silhouette of a trumpeter playing “Taps,” (introducing the solo trumpet as a major musical motif that will herald the start of battle). Accompanying text plants Wake Island in a line of American military low points including Valley Forge, the Argonne Forest’s Lost Battalion, and (problematically) Custer’s Last Stand. After laying the chummy groundwork of the all-American combat unit (featuring the boisterous William Bendix as Private Randall), Farrow handles the sudden eruption of war soberly—after the radio operator is interrupted (spelling the word “nuptial,” no less) with the report of the Pearl Harbor attack, Randall reacts in stunned silence, followed by the simple exclamation, “Holy smokes!” Farrow sustains the muted feeling of shock as the news is repeated to others, saving the pulsing dramatics for the arrival of Japanese invasion force on the horizon. Farrow, an Australian sailor-turned-director who had already served in the Canadian war effort before illness forced his discharge, proves perfect for capturing the urgency of the pitched battle that ensues. The combat scenes feature an array of eye-popping stunt work and practical effects playing out right beside the main characters in the frame. Such immersive effects work would be unsustainable in the endless series of war films to follow, and as war film production settled into a groove (and stock battle footage became more readily accessible), the fight would be increasingly isolated from the storyline within the finished film. For the moment, though, these integrated pyrotechnics brought the faraway battlefield bracingly close to home.
Meanwhile, the storyline throughout the battle salvages American dignity even as defeat draws inevitably closer. Burnett and Butler connect Major Caton’s successful strategy in repulsing the first Japanese assault to William Prescott’s famous “whites of their eyes” command to the Minutemen in the first major engagement of the Revolutionary War. Farrow also does a skillful job of interweaving the necessary moments of grief and camaraderie that surface between waves of the increasingly overwhelming Japanese attack (including a mournfully lit disclosure of tragic news from home). The conclusion of the film, suggesting that the beloved American troops all died in defense of the island (an embellishment—they had surrendered after holding off the first assault), bracingly cements the resolve to continue the fight, a sharp rally cry for the struggle to follow.
Farrow’s war film may not be the most ambitious or masterful war film of the period, but it freshly and effectively channels the patriotic fervor that coursed through Hollywood in the early days of the war. It was a sentiment reflected elsewhere in the 1942 Best director race, in Michael Curtiz’s sweepingly rah-rah musical biopic, Yankee Doodle Dandy and William Wyler’s winning home front drama Mrs. Miniver. Rounding out the five were Mervyn LeRoy’s torturing romance Random Harvest and the dark Americana of Sam Wood’s King’s Row. For me, it’s a three-way race between Curtiz, Wyler, and Farrow for their three variations on patriotic spirit, but Wake Island, at once the smallest and grandest of the productions, earns my vote for harnessing a seminal moment in American military history with instant clarity and precision.