Wednesday, June 19, 2019

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE? Minesweeper (1943)



                        In its attempt to lionize every branch of the military in WWII, Hollywood finally got around to minesweeping in this 1943 B-film.  It was directed by William Berke and it is his only war movie.  It is also the only war film to feature minesweeping.  I doubt we will ever see another.

                        The movie opens, predictably, with “Anchors Aweigh” playing over the credits.  Also not surprising is the credit to the cooperation of the U.S. Navy.  It provided a technical adviser – Commander Louis Gwinn.  He helped with the screenplay, although that was probably not something he told his grandkids about.  The story begins with hoboes on a train.  It’s the Great Depression after all.  One of the bums is a deserter from the peacetime navy.  Lt. Richard Houston (Richard Arlen) went AWOL because it was the only way to pay off his gambling debts.  News of Pearl Harbor convinces alias “Tennessee” Smith that the war will not be won by hoboes.  He enlists under his new name.  He befriends Chief Petty Officer “Fixit” Smith (that’s right, the two main characters have the same last name!) and wants to be more than just friends with his niece Mary (Jean Parker).  This being a 1940s war movie, Tennessee will be in a love triangle with Seaman Nash (Russell Hayden).  Speaking of clich├ęs, Tennessee goes through boot camp, but at least it’s different than most cinematic boot camps as it includes semaphore.  They do have rifle practice and before you ask why, they might have to shoot mines, duh.  Specifically, mines in San Diego harbor.  Tennessee decides to seal the deal with Mary by buying her a nice wedding ring.  But where to get the money?  How about from his addictive gambling?  He’ll have to go AWOL again to find a game.  Someone will have to cover for him and take his place on a dangerous minesweeping operation.  This will lead to drama and eventually to redemption.  And a solution to the love triangle by subtraction.

                        Sorry minesweeping fans, but your movie is rather lame.  And forgettable.  It is a waste of time, but at least its short – only 66 minutes.  Actually, it would be better if it had been longer.  Maybe then we could have gotten a true tutorial on minesweeping.  The boot camp and minesweeping scenes are truncated.  Weirdly, for a movie supported by the Navy which presumably was hoping for a recruiting bump, the movie does not appeal to hoboes hoping to serve their country.  Unless they had a death wish.  Two of the three main characters die.  You do have a chance at glory in this service, however.  Ask Tennessee, who singlehandedly solved the problem of Japanese mines blocking San Diego harbor.  Don’t ask why Tennessee’s minesweeper is in port the whole movie (he sleeps each night on shore) while the war wages throughout the Pacific and Atlantic.

                        “Minesweeper” might deserve an F, but it is inoffensive and that would be insensitive to the real minesweepers.  It is low budget and it shows.  The acting is average.  The love triangle is lacking in chemistry.  The cinematography is the stand in front of a screen type.  And the underwater scenes are murky, like a bad submarine movie.  It reminds me of 1943’s “Destroyer” which had similar weaknesses, but had Edward G. Robinson and Glenn Ford.  That’s a big difference.

GRADE  =  D

3 comments:

  1. I enjoyed the movie and think that the short running time was part of the reason why. The short time is just about right to work through the main character's mysterious past. It's nothing very shocking, so it's just as well that it's not drawn out. I suspect that this film would have been shown with at least one other feature so the audience would not need to receive the same level of entertainment as they might expect from a standalone movie.

    Although two the main characters die I suspect the movie still worked in its propaganda aim of encouraging enlistment. The Minesweeper navy seems like a fun place to work. The crew all more or less resemble the ever-cheerful Fixit, a former sailor who reenlists after Pearl Harbor and who is on friendly terms with his officers. At one point he volunteers to take the place of a crewman who he claims is "sick" and his commander seemingly accepts the arrangement. Food is plentiful and apparently tasty - one crewman disparages a rope as "as tough as a civilian steak!" There are numerous suggestions that hobos and 30something men with poor career prospects could earn a comfortable living and gain the respect of society by joining the Navy, while at the same time getting the pleasure of looking down on those hobos who fail to join as no-good bums.

    It is true that characters die. But this first emphasizes the respectability of the job: even local minesweeper ships face danger and therefore merit admiration from the public. But also, a thoughtful viewer might note that all of the deaths occur from Japanese mines that have been strewn inside American continental harbors - an event that, if it actually happened (did the Japanese mine American harbors, I wonder? Surely not anywhere East of Hawaii) would have been rare by 1943 and I think anyone who paid attention to newspaper reports of the time would see minesweeping as a relatively safe job.

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    1. Thanks for the input. I would be shocked to learn any American harbor was mined. I was referring to the deaths discouraging enlistment sort of tongue in cheek.

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