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Gung Ho!

Gung Ho!(1943)

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teaser Gung Ho! (1943)

"This is a factual record of the Second Marine Raider Battalion, from its inception seven weeks after Pearl Harbor, through its first brilliant victory," reads the opening titles of Gung Ho!, the 1943 war drama based on the Makin Island Raid of August, 1942. A few dramatic liberties aside, it's a fairly accurate dramatization of the first major offensive action by the Americans after the attack upon Pearl Harbor.

The Second Marine Raider Battalion (also known as "Carlson's Raiders"), an elite Marine battalion of 200 rigorously trained Marines, was covertly transported to the island of Butaritari (the largest of the islands of the Makin Atoll) in two submarines. They destroyed the Japanese installations and cleared the Japanese forces from the island and successfully retreated by submarine with remarkably few losses. With a public starved for an American success, it was perfect fodder for a Hollywood supporting the war effort with a slate of war movies heavy on rousing triumphs and patriotic themes.

Randolph Scott is named Colonel Thorwald in the film, but for all intents and purposes he is Lieutenant Colonel Evans Carlson, the real-life commander of the Second Marine Raider Battalion. Carlson had been a military observer in China, where he learned first hand the tactics, the strengths, and the weaknesses of the Japanese military. He returned with what were then unconventional ideas on warfare and taught a brand of guerilla warfare to the unique new Marine strike force developed for special missions, with an emphasis on hand-to-hand combat including training in Judo. His motto was "gung ho," a Chinese phrase explained in the film as: "gung, to work, and ho, harmony." His term for teamwork soon became the battalion's rallying cry and the phrase soon spread through the Marine Corps.

Scott was a busy man in the forties, having moved from a secondary leading man in comedies and romances to stalwart authority figures in westerns and, since Pearl Harbor, war movies. Lean, athletic and rugged, he was a natural for these roles, while his easy-going smile brought a humanizing warmth essential for the role. The real-life Carlson was famous for his egalitarian leadership, practicing his principles of teamwork within the military structure, and Gung Ho! makes a point that Thorwald and his officers eat the same chow, sleep in the same bunks, and live in the same conditions as his men.

For the Hollywood version of the story, screenwriter Lucien Hubbard beefed up the true story with a few fictional embellishments, such as a tense scene of the Marines, helplessly packed into the submarine's tight quarters, enduring a bombing barrage that batters the submerging vessels. One of Gung Ho!'s signature scenes was also created specifically for the movie: the Raiders paint an American flag on a captured Japanese installation and then retreat. When the Japanese ground forces retake the outpost, their own air force targets them, sadistically cackling as they bomb and strafe what they think is the American invasion force. Yes, the film is steeped in propaganda and racist jingoism painful to contemporary eyes and ears but common to films made in the heat of the war. The first question put to the Marines applying for the special battalion: "Why do you want to kill Japs?"

A classic cross-section of American soldier types respond with various reasons and are recruited into the ranks. There's the tough Brooklyn kid, the nave country boy, a minister, and a pair of competitive, scrappy half brothers (Noah Beery, Jr. and David Bruce) competing for the affections of the same girl (Grace McDonald, standing in for all the girls these soldiers left back home). The immigrant culture is represented by a paternal Greek Lieutenant (J. Carrol Naish) and a fun-loving Irish officer, while a token Hispanic and Chinese-American appear in the interview montage, then essentially disappear for the rest of the film. (As a side note, the Japanese soldiers are all portrayed by Chinese and Filipino actors. Audiences at the time probably didn't notice, but the disparity is far more apparent today.)

Robert Mitchum was just beginning his career when he landed a small but memorable role as a scrappy kid named "Pig-Iron" who learns discipline and leadership under the rigorous training. It led directly to larger roles in such higher-profile war movies as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) and Story of G.I. Joe (1945).

Journeyman director Ray Enright, a former director of comedies and light musicals, had recently found his footing with a series of two-fisted westerns (including The Spoilers (1942), his first film with Randolph Scott) and he does solid work on Gung Ho!, especially as the film moves from the familiar clichs of platoon drama character vignettes to the sinewy action scenes of the invasion. Even the training scenes flex an attitude not often seen in war films, where we're reminded that the "dirty tricks" disdained by movies concerned with honor and fair play are the very tactics that may save your life in hand-to-hand combat. Enright, who served in the Signal Corps in World War I, makes survival and success in battle at all cost the highest of patriotic values.

Gung Ho! represents the Makin Island Raid as an unqualified success. To a certain extent, the film is correct: the forces cleared the island with remarkable efficiency and successfully retreated back to Pearl Harbor. But there was a second objective that the film neglects to mention: it was to be an intelligence gathering mission, and the battalion returned with no prisoners and little intelligence. Military historians note that the very success of the raid gave warning to the Japanese about the weaknesses in their defenses, who had reinforced their battlements by the time American forces launched their full assaults for a bloody campaign a year later.

To the American public, however, it was a sign of strength, of hope, and of victory, the first response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Throughout Gung Ho!, Scott is called upon to deliver tough but compassionate speeches to his men, but the rousing victory speech at the end of their mission accomplished is delivered directly to the camera and the 1943 audience.

Producer: Walter Wanger
Director: Ray Enright
Screenplay: Lucien Hubbard, Joseph Hoffman, W.S. LeFrancois (story)
Cinematography: Milton Krasner
Film Editing: Milton Carruth
Art Direction: Alexander Golitzen, John B. Goodman
Music: Frank Skinner
Cast: Randolph Scott (Colonel Thorwald), Alan Curtis (John Harbison), Noah Beery, Jr. (Cpl. Kurt Richter), J. Carrol Naish (Lieutenant C.J. Cristoforos), Sam Levene (Leo Andreof), David Bruce (Larry O'Ryan).

by Sean Axmaker

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