When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, Hollywood stepped up and answered the call in their own way; several stars joined the fight overseas while on the home front, stars raised money for the effort via bonds and the Hollywood Canteen – started by Bette Davis and John Garfield – served the men and women of the armed forces until the end of the conflict. Studios pitched in too, producing stirring dramas and action thrillers to drum up pride and support for the Allies; Wake Island, coming in early in this wave of patriotic propaganda, was one of those war thrillers. Originally released by Paramount Pictures, Kino has made the movie available on Blu-ray for the first time from Universal (the current rights holder).
The Production: 4/5
In November of 1941, US Marine Corps Major Geoffrey Caton (Brian Donlevy) is assigned to the garrison stationed on Wake Island, with military contractor Shad McClosky (Albert Dekker) also heading for the atoll to assist in constructing trenches and living quarters. The tension between Caton and McClosky underscores the tension between the garrison and the civilians on the island, but all that changes when the bombing of Pearl Harbor occurs. When the Japanese Navy set their sights on Wake, both civilians and the Marines work together to hold off the invaders for as long as they can. However, when it becomes clear that the forces are outnumbered, Caton makes a decision that makes sure that the Marines on Wake would be remembered long after the battle…
As one of the first propaganda films the US made to drum up patriotic pride during WWII, Wake Island is a thrilling war movie that brought one of the earliest battles the country was involved in to vivid life. With the real life eponymous atoll occupied by the Japanese, Paramount recreated the battle in various locations in the Southern California (including the Salton Sea – with aerial battles filmed over the Great Salt Lake in Utah) and had access to the Marine Corps records of the battle for that extra touch of authenticity. Director John Farrow (who earned a Best Director Oscar nomination for his work here) brilliantly conveys the camaraderie between the civilians and Marines during the battle and the battle itself is well staged, shot and edited for maximum effect. The only complaint here is that the ending deviates from the real life conflict in one major aspect: without giving away some specific details, the movie clearly changed some of the circumstances in order to drum up patriotic feelings. Other than that major complaint, Wake Island is still one of the finest WWII movies made during the conflict and one of the best war movies of the 1940’s that worthy of a second look.
Though known for his many villainous and character parts, Brain Donlevy is given one of his few notable leading roles as Major Caton; the same year this movie was released, in a remarkable and patriotic coincidence, he also portrayed President Andrew Jackson in the fantasy film The Remarkable Andrew. In one of his earliest film roles, Macdonald Carey – sometimes referred to as the “King of the B’s” in some Hollywood circles – makes a notable impression as the daring and tragic fighter pilot Lt. Cameron; Carey actually enlisted in the Marines shortly after the film’s release and served in the Air Warning Squadron 3 in the Pacific theater of the war, thus proving that life imitated art in this case. William Bendix earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his part as a troublemaking private alongside Robert Preston, who serves in a not too dissimilar capacity here; Albert Dekker (Dr. Cyclops himself) is given a notable non-heavy role as the defense contractor on the atoll. Rounding out the cast here are Walter Abel as the garrison commander, Rod Cameron as Captain Lewis, Bill Goodwin as Sgt. Higbee on screen and as the narrator for both the prologue and the patriotic epilogue of the film, Damian O’Flynn as the captain who’s unceremoniously gunned down by enemy fire while parachuting out of his downed aircraft, uncredited appearances by Hugh Beaumont as a captain, Barbara Britton as Cameron’s wife, Hillary Brooke as one of the two women McCloskey is accompanied with leaving the Hawaiian inn, James Brown as a wounded first lieutenant, Dane Clark as the radioman Sparks, Alan Hale Jr. as a sight setter, Richard Loo as the Japanese ambassador, and – the most notable uncredited role – Philip Van Zandt as the unfortunately named Corporal Gus Goebbels, who’s the subject of many taunts for his fellow servicemen, especially Bendix and Preston.
3D Rating: NA
The film is presented in its original 1:37:1 aspect ratio for this HD transfer. Film grain is organic with fine details and gray scale given a faithful representation throughout; issues like scratches, dirt, or tears are minor to not noticeable in some scenes. Overall, this is likely the best the movie will ever look on home video and a major improvement over previous DVD releases.
The film’s original mono soundtrack is presented on a DTS-HD Master Audio track for this release. Dialogue is both strong and clear, with sound effects and David Buttolph’s score also given similar – but not overpowering – clarity as well. Problems like distortion, crackling, or hissing are very minimal here, which means that this is likely the best the movie will ever sound on home video and another improvement over previous DVD releases.
Special Features: 3/5
Commentary by filmmaker Steve Mitchell and author Steven Jay Rubin – Recorded for this release, Mitchell and Rubin talk about the movie’s production, the cast and crew, and some of the differences between the film and the real life battle.
Theatrical Trailer (2:08)
Bonus KLSC Trailers – The Eagle and the Hawk, Fixed Bayonets!, Run Silent, Run Deep, Time Limit, Ten Seconds to Hell & Calcutta
A hit with both critics and audiences upon first release, Wake Island is not just a great piece of WWII patriotic propaganda, but also a well done and entertaining war movie worthy of rediscovery. Kino’s Blu-ray release should aid in the process with a HD transfer that’s a solid improvement over previous home video releases and an informative and insightful commentary track as a special feature. Highly recommended.
Some of our content may contain marketing links, which means we will receive a commission for purchases made via those links. In our editorial content, these affiliate links appear automatically, and our editorial teams are not influenced by our affiliate partnerships. We work with several providers (currently Skimlinks and Amazon) to manage our affiliate relationships. You can find out more about their services by visiting their sites.