Monday 11 August 2014

Movie Review: The Fighting Seabees (1944)

A propaganda film designed to boost conscription in the US Navy's Construction Battalions, The Fighting Seabees is a heavily fictionalized account of the unit's creation. It is also a formulaic programmer with a ridiculous plot, wooden dialogue and one of the worst wartime love triangles ever to splatter onto the screen.

With World War Two raging in the Pacific, construction crews hired by the Navy to build military facilities like airstrips and pipelines on remote islands are targeted by the Japanese. But being civilian contractors, they are neither trained nor armed to defend themselves. With too many of his men getting killed and injured, tough construction boss and recruiter Wedge Donovan (John Wayne) teams up with the Navy's Lieutenant Commander Robert Yarrow (Dennis O'Keefe) to demand the creation of the Construction Battalions (CBs).

As the Navy brass consider the request, Wedge takes matter into his own hands and arms his men on their next job, with unintended consequences. Meanwhile, both Wedge and Yarrow are falling in love with war correspondent Constance Chesley (Susan Hayward). Approval is finally granted for Wedge to create a battalion and train the first batch of Seabees. The now battle-capable men will get a chance to prove themselves on the next construction mission.

It is almost pointless to criticize a film apparently conceived and delivered for the purpose of motivating the home front with the war still theoretically in the balance. The Fighting Seabees is propaganda intended to glorify the Navy thinly disguised as entertainment, and other than serving its patriotic 1944 duty, it's a miserable cinematic experience.

The dialogue and characters are a combination of the mechanical and the bland, and the performances are strictly stock. Director Edward Ludwig hustles the actors through their scenes aiming for the cold efficiency that comes with reading lines from the nearest wall. Wayne inexplicably prances around with his shirt partially or fully open for almost the entire first half of the film. Hayward's character is dropped in with no context, while O'Keefe provides conclusive proof of his limited talent.

The action scenes are almost comically bad, with construction workers storming - slowly -  into battle riding on bulldozers, and Japanese fighter pilots and snipers portrayed as silent but smiling demoniacal monsters every time they pull the trigger. On every island Wedge manages to find new ways to disobey orders and create carnage, and after leading one ill-fated charge that costs the lives of many, instead of being banished as far away from the military as possible, he is somehow put in charge of creating the first Seabee unit.

The relationship between Wedge, Constance and Yarrow is a disaster zone built on confused hormones. Wedge and Yarrow seem to fall in love with Constance because she is the only female in their universe of greasy soldiers. She, in turn, first decides to love one, then the other, then both, then she wisely professes her true love for the one who is still alive. In the meantime, about halfway through the film she shows the wisdom of a dingbat to stumble through a battle zone and get herself shot, to make sure that Wedge and Yarrow have her to worry about in addition to the small matter of a world war.

A painful example of good talent wasted on a bad project with era-specific intentions, The Fighting Seabees is only watchable for the presence of Wayne and Hayward, although neither can claim this to be anywhere near their better achievements.

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