Tuesday, June 24, 2014

DUELING MOVIES: Gung Ho! (1943) vs. Darby’s Rangers (1958)


                I like small unit movies, especially when they bring light to actual units that performed ably in war.  “Gung Ho!” and “Darby’s Rangers” are two of those types of movies.  Each covers the formation, training, and combat involvement of two storied World War II units.  “Gung Ho!” is the story of the Second Marine Raider Battalion led by Lt. Col. Evans Carlson and its raid on Makin Island.  “Darby’s Rangers” is the tale of the 1st Ranger Battalion led by Maj. William Darby and its involvement in the Battle of Cisterna in Italy.

                “Gung Ho!” is based on a magazine article written by one of the participants in the raid.  One of the technical advisers was Carlson.  It was directed by Ray Enright.  The Marine Corps cooperated with the film, but insisted that Carlson not be singled out.  The main character is Col. Thorwald (Randolph Scott).  His call for volunteers results in the usual Hollywoodized heterogeneous unit that includes a hick, a Brooklynite, a minister, and two dysfunctional brothers in love with the same girl.  It also is multi-ethnic with a Greek, an Irishman, an Hispanic, and a Chinesese-American.  Each volunteer is asked “why do you want to kill Japs?”  One of the correct answers in the montage is: “I just don’t like Japs”.  Carlson adopts the Chinese motto of “gung ho” which means “work in harmony”.  He is a “players’ coach” who cares about his men and listens to them.

                The training montage has Chet Huntley (if you know who that is - hail, fellow baby boomer) as its narrator and sounds like an instructional film as he describes why they are learning certain things.  The men are taught unsporting methods that feature dirty tricks like spitting in your opponents face.  Thorwald counsels his men that they will have an advantage because the Japs lack initiative.  (Actually true.)  The training on Hawaii allows the film to remind the audience of the destruction of Pearl Harbor with some actual footage.  They are assigned a mission to raid a Japanese held island.  They get there via two submarines. The assault is action-packed.

                The movie is as accurate as could be hoped for.  Thorwald is pretty close to Carlson in personality and tactics.  Carlson had learned guerrilla tactics while serving in China.  He did adopt his slogan from the Chinese.  None of the other characters in the film are based on real people.  This was a dubious decision as one of the Raiders was Sgt. Clyde Thompson whose valor in the battle resulted in him becoming the first Marine to earn the Medal of Honor in WWII.  The final assault on Butaritari (one of the Makin Islands) is highly fictionalized.  They did get there via submarines, but there was no depth charging.  The ridiculous painting of the American flag to lure the Japanese aircraft to fratricide was obvious bull crap.  The movie was not interested in portraying the fact that nine men were accidentally left behind and the difficulties with the egress in high seas. The movie ends with the impression that the raid was an unqualified success.  In reality,  the goals of acquiring intelligence and bringing back prisoners were unfulfilled.  Not surprisingly, the movie makers were not interested in surmising that the raid actually had the unintended consequence of waking the Japanese up to the weaknesses of their island defenses.      

                “Gung Ho!” is surprisingly good.  There is lots of action and if you like stabbings, this movie is for you.  The acting is fine, if a bit earnest.  Randolph Scott is his usual stolid self and Robert Mitchum makes the last of his seventeen acting credits for 1943.  There’s nothing special about the cinematography, but what would you expect from a standard 1940s war movie?  Similar could be said about the unexceptional score.  The sound effects are good, however.  The screenplay does avoid clichés which is refreshing and the linear plot flows well.  Also refreshing is there is only one romance and it is minor (just enough for the movie poster).  It is propagandistic and patriotic, but not cloyingly.  Although the movie does close with Thorwald giving another speech about the fight for freedom as patriotic music swells.  The themes of teamwork, showing initiative, and fighting for American values are clearly advanced.

                “Darby’s Rangers” was released in 1958.  William Wellman (“The Story of G.I. Joe” / “Battleground”) supposedly made it in exchange for studio funding for his pet “Lafayette Escadrille”.  The studio insisted on a movie similar to the wildly popular “Battle Cry”.  The screenplay was “suggested” by the eponymous book by Maj. James Attieri.  The movie was bizarringly titled “The Young Invaders” in the United Kingdom.    The choice of black and white was done to help with the blending of archival footage.

                The movie opens with Maj. Darby (James Garner in a role originally meant for Charleston Heston) taking command of a new unit intended as an American version of the British Commandoes.  He describes the Rangers as the “tip of the javelin”.  On his wall are slogans like “Danger to a Ranger is no stranger”.  He picks a heterogeneous unit and then makes the head-scratching decision to billet the men with British families.  How this will toughen them for suicide missions is perplexing.  It does put them is in contact with British females for some truly gag-worthy romantic subplots.  One of these has a recruit courting the daughter of their crusty British drill instructor.  The highlight is when the designated unit villain leers at a British wife and says “I hope I can fit in” while holding a phallic symbol!  The training montage features the most pratfalls I have ever seen in a war movie and this is not even supposed to be a comedy.  Good drinking game – take a drink every time someone falls. 

"To be an effective fighting force, my men must
have a lot of sex!"
                One hour into the movie we get our first taste of combat in North Africa and it lasts two minutes.  That’s right, we sat through an hour of lame-ass romantic subplots and this is our reward!  From there it’s on to Italy for an extended battle with a sniper and some laugh out loud deaths.  Again, I had to check to make sure this was not a comedy.  We get the clichéd appearance of Axis Sally:  “Don’t get caught, Chicago gangsters.  You’ll be shot.”  A Lt. Dittman (Edd Byrnes – if that name does not cause a flutter, you were not a teenage girl in the 50s) to be a book-following foil to the lenient Darby.  And to show that just because you are fighting in Italy does not mean you can’t have great hair.  This also allows the movie to add one more romantic subplot.  Arrrgh!  Join the Rangers – get a dame.  The film “builds” to the big set piece which is the Battle of Cisterna (part of the Anzio campaign).  If you think this is going to pull the movie out of the trash can, think again.

"If we don't get off this sound stage
we'll never have romance again"
                The First Ranger Battalion deserved an historically accurate movie.  This movie is not it.  The reason for its creation is accurate, but not the specifics of how it was Gen. Truscott’s idea.  The training was intense, but it was highly unlikely they had a lot of time for wooing British birds in their own homes.  The movie skips over the unit’s involvement in Dieppe, Algeria, and Tunisia.  It was noted for raids behind enemy lines.  Then it was sent to Italy and its mission changed.  Similar to the 1st Special Service Force (The Devil's Brigade), which also fought at Anzio, Darby’s Rangers were improperly used as shock troops.  Its mission at Cisterna was to capture the town and hold it until the main force arrived.  Seventeen Panzer IVs had something to say about that.  The battle lasted seven hours and only 6 of 767 members survived and the unit was disbanded soon afterward.  The disaster had no silver lining as the movie claims. 
Did you know that a good way to get tight with
your drill instructor is to make moves on his daughter?

                This is a terrible movie.  One of the worst I have seen.  It is also very disappointing because the 1st Ranger Battalion did not get the recognition it should have.  The ridiculous plot is degrading.  The acting is poor.  It has the usual pompous Max Steiner score.  (Is there anything in war movie history that has stood the test of time worse than Max Steiner scores?)  The sets are back lots and decidedly fake looking.  The movie is tedious and the action is anemic and very unrealistic.  All ten minutes of it.  At one point, they attack an 88 and the Germans leave their trenches to make a banzai attack.  Dittman uses a mortar like a grenade launcher.  Wellman clearly did not have his heart in the movie and sadly his “Lafayette Escadrille” was not the career capper that he hoped for.  Wellman stopped making movies in 1958 and when you look at this 1940s crap stuck in the late 50s when war movies were making the transition to cynicism, you can see that he had overstayed.  Most of the blame must go to the studio who insisted that audiences wanted war soap operas.
                  In conclusion, although "Gung Ho!" is an average WWII film, it is superior to the lame-ass "Darby's Rangers".

Gung Ho!  =  C
Darby’s Rangers  =  F-

Gung Ho! trailer



  1. I have not seen Gung Ho but I have seen Darby's Rangers and your review is spot on. easily one of the most painful movies I have ever watched.

    1. I hate it when they flub a good subject and then the chances of getting it right are practically zero. Or they could botch it a second time like with "Red Tails".

  2. Darby's Rangers, like Merrill's Marauders, seemed like it was made mainly as a showcase for some of Warner Brothers' contract players, some of whom were (or later became) popular in TV series.

    I remember Chet Huntley co-hosting the evening news with David Brinkley. "Good night, David." "Good night, Chet." That was a catch phrase in the late 1960's.


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