‘Gung Ho!’: The Story of Carlson’s Makin Island Raiders (1943)
“Battle cry of the Marine raiders!”
Director: Ray Enright
Cast: Randolph Scott, Alan Curtis, Noah Beery Jr.
Synopsis: The true story of Carlson’s Raiders and their World War II attack on Makin Island.
Ray Enright’s account of Carlson’s Makin Raiders must have had its wartime audience — still smarting from the shock of Pearl Harbour — whooping in the aisles when it was released. The action scenes hold up incredibly well even today, and it’s difficult to think of any other contemporary movies that went full tilt the way this one does.
Of course, today the film largely looks like a huge bunch of genre cliches and stereotypes thrown at the screen in a blatant attempt to stir up ant-Jap sentiment amongst the American population. Randolph Scott temporarily hangs up his spurs to portray Colonel Thorwald, champion of the Chinese philosophy of ‘gung ho’ (harmonious togetherness). He’s a hero here, stirring his men on to ever greater heights and delivering a patriotic speech direct to camera at the film’s end, so it’s strange to think that less than half-a-decade later he would probably be denounced as a pinko subversive for promoting the exact same philosophies. Anyway, Thorwald whittles down 15,000 volunteers into an elite fighting unit of 200 men.
We’re introduced to a handful of these successful volunteers in a noticeably long-winded and clumsy opening sequence. All the stock characters are here: the misunderstood tough guy (a young Robert Mitchum), the squabbling half-brothers battling over the same girl who are secretly willing to lay down their lives for one another; the religious warrior; the Noo Yawk tough guy; the country lunk (who ain’t got no sheep so has to count hogs when he gets the willies as the sub transporting them to their mission submerges for the first time — and then has to count the same four over and over ‘cos them’s all he’s got), and so on, etc.
The film’s structure is one that was used ad infinitum for about twenty years after WWII’s end: introduce a disparate group of individuals/misfits to the audience and a whip-sharp commanding officer and see them bond as they are put through rigorous training before being shipped off to the battlefields to put all they’ve learned to use. This one does it as well as any other, even though there are too many characters to allow us to identify too closely with any of them.
The film really takes off when the battle scenes on Makin Island begin. Again, lots of it is now stereotypical, but this one possesses such enthusiasm for its subject that you can’t help getting caught up in it: dastardly Japs hide in palm trees but it does them no good: they’re lousy shots, unable to hit a coconut from two paces and our boys easily have them hanging from the branches like discarded sneakers. Self-sacrifice is abundant as troops go over the top without fear, bare-chested one of them, a grenade in each hand, sprinting between those poorly aimed bullets until a lucky shot cuts him down — but too late to stop him from delivering his presents to Tojo. Mitchum’s big moment comes when, lying injured, he spot’s a possum-playing Nip about to shoot one of our brave boys in the back. Big Bob lifts himself from his stretcher long enough to deliver a knife into the dastardly Jap’s back just as he is on the point of shooting. BANG! The shot fires harmlessly into the air. The intended target turns and offers a wide, grinning thanks to Bob and tosses off a half-salute. Bob returns the same sloppy salute before slumping back onto his stretcher, and you get a warm fuzzy feeling all over.
(Reviewed 21st July 2012)