*/**** Image B Sound C+
starring Preston Foster, Lloyd Nolan, William Bendix, Richard Conte
screenplay by Jerry Cady, based on the book by Richard Tregaskis
directed by Lewis Seiler
Wing and a Prayer (The Story of Carrier X)
*½/**** Image B- Sound C+
starring Don Ameche, Dana Andrews, William Eythe, Charles Bickford
screenplay by Jerome Cady
directed by Henry Hathaway
by Walter Chaw Filmed just months after the actual invasion of Guadalcanal late in 1942 and based on Richard Tregaskis's wildly popular (but excessively jingoistic and poorly-written) memoir of the same, Guadalcanal Diary is interesting for a glimpse at the Hollywood propaganda machine of WWII, if not for any other reason. With predictable inflammatory dialogue and plotting and broad burlesque performances by a gaggle of recognizable character actors in familiar stereotypes, Guadalcanal Diary is a rush job notable today for an early appearance by Anthony Quinn, in a role as the token ethnic fellow meant to inspire volunteerism in the barrio.
The whole of the plot is best described as occasionally bizarre war sketches that add up to a game of "What propagandist moral does this convey?"--the same rough description applying to Henry Hathaway's Wing and a Prayer, a film that contends America was itching for the Battle of Midway when in truth the Japanese Imperial Navy by all rights were poised to demolish the American fleet. The courage of the United States Marine Corps (Guadalcanal Diary) and Navy (Wing and a Prayer) is unquestioned, but the level of courage these films afford the grunts with the perspective of hindsight leads to the mistaken assumption that the U.S. was a gaggle of greenhorn naïfs ardently hoping to throw themselves on the conflagration of a dimly-understood lost cause. It is a lack of discretion that colours most Hollywood films made during WWII when a manifest-protected foolhardy was more important to champion than cool consideration and calculated risk.
In Guadalcanal Diary, Cpt. Davis (Richard Conte) and Cpt. Cross (Roy Roberts) lead a cast of familiar faces (Preston Foster, Lloyd Nolan, William Bendix, Quinn, Richard Jaeckel) on the first ground skirmish in the Pacific theatre. Their task is to hold the island and beachhead for the Army to land and establish a presence in what would become the first in a series of leapfrog beachheads projected to one day lead to an amphibious assault on Japan itself. Wing and a Prayer follows the exploits of an anonymous aircraft carrier ("Carrier X") as it engages in a game of opossum with the Japanese fleet, feigning cowardice in the hopes that it'll lull the yellow menace into a false sense of security. Don Ameche is fantastic as grim flight commander Bingo Harper and an impossibly young Harry Morgan is fun as grounded flyer Brainard, who is so itching for action that he blows up a training sled. After a few awkward moments of stock characters and situations (with baby-faced Jaeckel in almost the same eager-beaver recruit role that he plays in Guadalcanal Diary), Wing and a Prayer ends with an elaborate recreation of the Battle of Midway that downplays the luck involved in a U.S. victory while exaggerating the effectiveness of friendly bombs.
Both films are clearly products of their time, with numerous anecdotes relating spontaneous applause and standing curtain calls during their original theatrical runs. Their popular success calls into question the modern studios' decision to pull all patriotic mayhem films from theatrical release immediately following the terrorist attacks of September 11th; time is usually unkind to movies created primarily for patriotic purposes. (Note: even Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky is often unintentionally funny in its fervour.) Guadalcanal Diary and Wing and a Prayer are interesting from a historical standpoint but probably not enjoyable for modern audiences in any non-intellectualized sense. They portray the Japanese soldiers during WWII as "monkey" war dogs, slavering and inhuman. Being a Chinese man whose mother calls Nanking her hometown, I must confess I'm loathe to disagree with that characterization, yet I still find the casual racism of these films to be disturbing (if proximately understandable) and, worse, distracting.
Part of Fox's bare-bones DVD releases under the "Fox War Classics" banner, Guadalcanal Diary and Wing and a Prayer look fantastic. Exceptions in both are the insertions of archival battle footage that ironically look more out of place for the cleanness of the new transfers. Chapter 15 of Wing and a Prayer has a peculiar flaw: right after Fox pimps the "Sheik of Araby" sequence from Tin Pan Alley (with pin-up girls Betty Grable and Alice Fay) by playing it for the flyboys on a shaky projector that promptly eats the film, a sudden call-to-arms jumps and skips in almost an identical fashion--a peculiar instance of art imitating art. Beyond that, the source prints, given their age, are simply remarkable. Wing and a Prayer, however, does seem to have a slight contrast problem in some white haloing around darker items. Remastered stereo and mono sound and theatrical trailers round out both presentations. Originally published: November 13, 2001.