Monday 6 May 2013

Movie Review: Gung Ho! (1943)

Inspired by the true story of the Marine Raider Battalion responsible for the Makin Island assault during World War Two, Gung Ho! aims for inspirational but just delivers well-intentioned hokeyness.

A few months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, the Marine Corps calls for volunteers to join a newly created special unit tasked with conducting dangerous missions in the Pacific theatre. Under the leadership of Lieutenant Colonel Thorwald (Randolph Scott), a large number of men step forward. Some are motivated by personal circumstances, others are prone to extreme violence, and a few are simply keen to kill Japanese soldiers. Thorwald emphasizes the need for innovation and teamwork, and the men adopt the Chinese phrase Gung Ho, meaning "work together", as their rallying cry.

After undergoing rigorous training including learning the art of fighting in close-quarters, the men travel by submarine to the strategically located Makin Island, where their mission is to attack the Japanese garrison and destroy all enemy installations. Significantly outnumbered, the Marines use the element of surprise to land on the island and engage the heavily fortified Japanese defenders in vicious combat.

Directed by Ray Enright, Gung Ho! effectively conveys the brutalities of the conflict, sometimes with startling honesty. The Marines are seen to attract killers and psychopaths, and the training emphasizes the need to kill quickly and silently with nothing but a knife. There is no sugar-coating the horrors of war or the need to turn men into efficient killing machines in order to win it, and in the 1943 context of a raging conflict with an uncertain outcome, the movie's stance is lucid.

The production values are rudimentary, and the performances solidly second rate. As the battalion leader, Randolph Scott gets to deliver a couple of speeches meant to be inspirational, but his first speech is drowned out by the background drone of machinery at the Marine base where the movie was filmed (there must have been no budget or no time to schedule another take). His second speech, at the end of the movie, is delivered in cringe-inducing manner straight to the camera in a most comprehensive demonstration of Scott's lack of talent for anything other than Grade B westerns.

The rest of the cast includes Robert Mitchum in an early credited role, J. Carrol Naish as a soldier of Greek origin, and a large number of actors who never really made it past secondary features. Some attempts are made to provide a few back stories to personalize the soldiers, including a clumsy narrative about competitive half-brothers in love with the same woman.

Gung Ho! is at its best in recreating the battle on Makin Island, Enright finding and maintaining a decent amount of momentum and no shortage of heroism as the Marines fight their way against the superior numbers of a resolute enemy. When war is the message and talent is thin, its best to let the bullets do the talking.

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