‘Wake Island’: Another Attack on Dec. 8, 1941

A gripping film about American resolve during World War II.
‘Wake Island’: Another Attack on Dec. 8, 1941
Brothers until the end: Privates Joe Doyle (Robert Preston, L) and Aloysius K. 'Smacksie' Randall (William Bendix), in “Wake Island.” (Paramount Pictures)
Ian Kane

NR | 1h 28m | Action, Drama, War | 1942

When it comes to war films with subject matter as grim as that in the Battle of Wake Island, few films have begun in such a comedic way as the simply titled war drama, “Wake Island.” It was produced in 1942, so soon after the initial Japanese attack on Wake (on Dec. 8, 1941), that it had to be shot in the United States. The island was occupied by the Japanese until they surrendered it years later at the end of World War II.

At the beginning of the film, the narrator delivers a brief rundown of Wake Island and its military capabilities and civilian personnel staffing in 1941, which consists of several hundred U.S. Marines and a larger contingent of civilian contractors. We are shown a map of the island and perhaps its most distinguishing feature: its crescent shape and large inner lagoon.

Then we’re introduced to several of the main characters, including Marine Maj. Geoffrey Caton (Brian Donlevy) and pilot Lt. Bruce Cameron (Macdonald Carey), as well as military contracting boss Shad McClosky (Albert Dekker). Each of the men is leaving Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and traveling to Wake Island.

Already stationed on the isle itself are privates Aloysius K. ‘Smacksie’ Randall (William Bendix) and Joe Doyle (Robert Preston), who have a love-hate relationship that includes slinging wisecracks at each other that sometimes results in fisticuffs. Their disruptive antics soon come to the attention of Caton, who arrives on the island with the intention of improving its defensive capabilities. Canton also butts heads with McClosky, a very gruff man whose diplomacy skills could use some work.

Contracting boss Shad McClosky (Albert Dekker, L) and Marine Maj. Geoffrey Caton (Brian Donlevy), in “Wake Island.” (Paramount Pictures)
Contracting boss Shad McClosky (Albert Dekker, L) and Marine Maj. Geoffrey Caton (Brian Donlevy), in “Wake Island.” (Paramount Pictures)

Tightening Regulations

The movie’s entire first act focuses on the interpersonal relations between the men and their efforts to whip the island into shape under Caton’s stern but fair command. Caton is a by-the-book type of officer who has little patience for the more relaxed military regulations that the men have adopted as a result of being stationed on a tropical island.

Much of the comedy on display is due to Randall and Doyle’s hijinks as they play pranks on each other and generally make a mess of things. This culminates in Caton punishing them by ordering the duo to dig long, narrow slit trenches for shelter against potential enemy aerial bombing runs.

Meanwhile, McClosky clashes with Caton over the latter’s insistence on performing frequent air raid drills. Although McClosky thinks he and the other civilian contractors who work for him are excluded from the drills, Caton reminds him that everyone on the island has to abide by his orders, especially when it comes to safety. None of them have to wait long to see why such precautions are justified.

Just as Randall is about to be discharged from the Marines and board a plane as a civilian, radioman “Sparks” (Dane Clark in an uncredited role) breaks some dire news to everyone: The Japanese have carried out a massive assault on Pearl Harbor. “Holy smokes,” remarks Randall as he begins to consider the gravity of the situation and how it may affect Wake Island.

Japanese planes spotted, in “Wake Island.” (Paramount Pictures)
Japanese planes spotted, in “Wake Island.” (Paramount Pictures)

As the Marines prepare everyone on the island for a presumed expansion of Japanese hostilities, most of the laughs dry up (except a few about Randall’s silly civilian hat). Although the men scramble around to prepare as best they can, the Japanese soon launch their attack, and their first aerial bombers sweep in to soften up the island’s defenses.

The Japanese bombers wreak incredible havoc on the isle, destroying a wide range of both hard and soft targets. Caton notes that pilot Cameron has a group of four U.S. fighters that happen to be in the air already. However, the American planes are vastly outnumbered by their Japanese counterparts. As the island’s anti-aircraft defenses begin to blast skyward, will the Marines have enough to repel the Japanese invaders?

A Well-Made Film

The film evokes a sense of existential dread: While many of the exterior dialogue scenes played, I found myself checking the horizon behind the characters for distant Japanese bombers. This sense of impending doom permeates the film as the relatively small island tries to hold out, first against aerial attacks and naval bombardment, and eventually amphibious assaults.

While the film’s score is of the rather generic military potboiler variety, its sound and visual effects departments are top-notch and mix well to deliver an explosive feast for the senses. The acting is also quite good, especially on William Bendix and Robert Preston’s parts as two young wise-cracking Marines, whose care for one another is hidden behind lots of smack-talk and bravado.

Brian Donlevy also does an admirable job (no pun intended) as the Marine detachment’s no-nonsense commander, whose military ingenuity allows those he commands to hold out for as long as they can, and then some.

For those who are into patriotic war movies that also have some educational aspects to them (it inspired me to research the real Battle of Wake Island), you can’t go wrong with “Wake Island.”

It’s a gripping underdog tale that helped to bolster the Allied forces’ morale in one of the most important wars in our history—World War II.

“Wake Island” is available on Amazon Prime.
‘Wake Island’ Director: John Farrow Starring: Brian Donlevy, Robert Preston, Macdonald Carey Not Rated Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes Release Date: Aug. 1942 Rated: 4 stars out of 5
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Ian Kane is an U.S. Army veteran, author, filmmaker, and actor. He is dedicated to the development and production of innovative, thought-provoking, character-driven films and books of the highest quality.
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