Special Memorial Day Edition: Randolph Scott in GUNG HO! (Universal 1943)

Duke Wayne wasn’t the only movie cowboy who fought WWII in Hollywood. Randolph Scott battled fascism in quite a few war dramas, and one of his best is 1943’s GUNG HO! (currently streaming on The Film Detective ). The rock-solid Mr. Scott plays tough-as-nails Col. Thorwald, an expert in guerilla warfare thanks to his experience with the Chinese army, who whips a diverse crew of Marines into fighting shape to launch the first American ground offensive against the Japanese on Makin Island.

Scott and his second-in-command, the versatile character actor J. Carrol Naish (playing a Marine of Greek descent this time around), gather up a motley crew of misfits and reprobates ala THE DIRTY DOZEN:  there’s battling stepbrothers Noah Beery Jr. and David Bruce (who’re also rivals for the affections of pretty Grace McDonald in a subplot), hillbilly farmboy Rod Cameron, murderous minister Alan Curtis , “no good kid” Harold Landon (from Brooklyn, of course!), hustler Sam Levene , and most notably a young Robert Mitchum as a scrappy ex-boxer with the moniker ‘Pig Iron’. A shirtless Bob made the bobbysoxers swoon, and he was soon cast in a series of ‘B’ Westerns at RKO, then scored big two years later in another war flick, THE STORY OF G.I. JOE , leading to superstardom and screen immortality.

There’s plenty of blazing combat action, and the violence is quite brutal for the era, but we were at war, and War is Hell. Director Ray Enright handles it all well, with plenty of help from some of Universal’s best: DP Milton Krasner, editor Milton Carruth, composer Frank Skinner, and special effects wizard John P. Fulton . Lucien Hubbard and Joseph Hoffman’s script was based on the first-hand account by Lt. W.S. LeFrancois, first published in The Saturday Evening Post. Besides those previously mentioned, other Familiar Faces to film fans include Irving Bacon (in a funny bit as a soda jerk), Peter Coe , Dudley Dickerson, Louis-Jean Heydt, Robert Kent, Richard Lane, Walter Sande, and Milburn Stone. Those of *ahem* a certain age will recognize the voice of newscaster Chet Huntley narrating the proceedings.

Carlson’s Raiders: The Real Heroes of Makin Island

Modern day viewers may cringe at some of the blatant racist epitaphs hurled towards the Japanese (“I wanna kill Japs”, “I just don’t like Japs”), but once again I need to remind you of historical context. Pearl Harbor was still fresh in America’s collective mind, and retaliation was demanded. The real raid on Makin Island was the first strike, led by Lt. Col. Evans Carlson and his second-in-command James Roosevelt (FDR’s son). The 2nd Raider Battalion was transported by submarine to the Japanese stronghold, and the bloody two day battle resulted in the destruction of Japan’s garrison, with 46 verified enemy kills. The Americans weren’t spared either: 28 dead (including nine who were captured and later executed), 17 wounded, and 3 MIA. Today we honor those who sacrificed their lives on Makin Island and in other battles for the cause of freedom. Before you eat those hot dogs or bask on the beach, remember them in your thoughts and prayers.

Special Memorial Day Edition: THE DEVIL’S BRIGADE (United Artists 1968)

In the wake of 1967’s THE DRITY DOZEN came a plethora of all-star, similarly themed films. THE DEVIL’S BRIGADE is one of those, though just a bit different: it’s based on the true-life exploits of the First Special Service Force, a collection of American misfits straight from the stockades and the crack, highly disciplined Canadian military, forging them into one cohesive fighting unit.

William Holden  heads the cast as Lt. Col. Robert Frederick, tasked with putting the units together. His seconds-in-command are the cigar chomping American Major Brecker (Vince Edwards) and proud Canadian Major Crown (Cliff Robertson). The Americans, as rowdy a bunch of reprobates as there ever was, include Claude Akins , Luke Askew, Richard Jaeckel, and Tom Troupe, while the Canadians are represented by the likes of Richard Dawson, Jeremy Slate, and Jack Watson , war movie vets all.  Andrew Prine is also aboard as an AWOL soldier looking for a chance to see combat.

There’s plenty of conflict at first between the uncouth Americans and their regimented Canadian counterparts, but they’re soon resolved in the obligatory barroom brawl scene with some townsfolk that include NFL star Paul Hornung (Green Bay Packers) as a local lumberjack and ex-middleweight champ Gene Fullmer as a bartender. The men are now acting as one, but the powers-that-be decided to disband the unit, prompting Frederick to head to Washington and argue his case before Guest Stars Michael Rennie (as Gen. Mark Clark) and Dana Andrews (Brig. Gen. Naylor). They’re given a chance to prove themselves in Italy, and capture  an entire town away from the Germans on their own, despite the protests of Commanding Officer Carroll O’Connor .

The Devil’s Brigade, as the Nazis have dubbed them, are rewarded with a dangerous mission to scale a rugged, rocky hill and take out a German artillery stronghold. Many of the all-stars die heroically before the mission is accomplished, and the Allied forces are now able to march into North Italy. Action veteran  Andrew V. McLaglen directs competently, and stunt coordinator Hal Needham keeps things moving, yet it feels like we’ve seen this movie before, different characters maybe, but same results, and at 130 minutes is way overlong. It’s not a bad film, it just suffers from same old formula syndrome.

The real men of the First Special Service Force (1942-44)

The real First Special Service Force were an elite commando unit who first saw action in the Aleutian Islands, then were sent by Gen. Clark to Naples, where they served with dignity and honor. Following their bloody success (91 dead, 313 wounded), they were sent to Anzio where they stormed the beach and fought behind enemy lines, and later to the South of France during Operation Dragoon, with major victories (12,000 German casualties, 7,000 Nazi prisoners). The Force was disbanded in December 1944 with full honors, their mission accomplished and their efforts helping to speed the war’s end. Let’s not forget this Memorial Day not all those who fought and died for freedom were American, and remember our brave Canadian allies of the First Special Service Force.

One Hit Wonders #14: “The Ballad of The Green Berets” by SSgt. Barry Sadler (RCA Victor Records 1966)

The year was 1966. The month was May. The Vietnam War was dividing the country as the U.S. made their way into Cambodia, civil rights marchers were  protesting across the nation, and China set off their third nuclear bomb. Rock and roll ruled the pop charts, as The Rolling Stones were having their 19th nervous breakdown, Nancy Sinatra’s boots were made for walkin’, Bobby Fuller fought the law (and the law won), but it was Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler, an Army medic who served in Vietnam, who began a five-week run at #1 on the Billboard charts with “The Ballad of The Green Berets”:

The music charts weren’t as polarized then as they are now. Besides all the latest rock hits, you could find traditional pop (“My Love”, Petula Clark), R&B (“Uptight”, Stevie Wonder), country (“Cryin’ Time”, Ray Charles), instrumentals (“Theme from Zorba the Greek”, Tijuana Brass), even blues (“Scratch My Back”, Slim Harpo). Sadler’s solemn tribute to the troops, co-written by Robin Moore (whose novel “The Green Berets” formed the basis for John Wayne’s 1968 movie), struck a chord with many Americans, even those who opposed the war, honoring those elite soldiers who put country before personal feelings and served with pride.

As for SSgt. Sadler, his music career faded after his mega-hit, and he found a second career writing paperback novels about Casca The Eternal Mercenary, a Roman soldier who stabbed Jesus on the cross with his spear, and was cursed to wander the world in eternal combat until The Second Coming. Tragedy struck Sadler when, in 1978, he shot and killed one Lee Emerson Bellamy, ex-boyfriend of Sadler’s then-lover. In 1988, Sadler himself was shot in the head in Guatemala City, becoming a quadriplegic suffering from brain damage. He died in a Tennessee VA Hospital in 1989. Sadler was 49.

As we celebrate Memorial Day today, take the time to reflect on those who fought and died in the cause of freedom. Though it seems our country is even more divided today than it was in 1966, remember we’re ALL Americans, and would not have even half the privileges we have today if it weren’t for those who gave all, men like those of The Green Beret.

Special Memorial Day Edition: THE FIGHTING SULLIVANS (20th Century-Fox 1944)

War is hell, not only on the participants, but on those left home waiting for word on their loved ones, dreading the inevitable. THE FIGHTING SULLIVANS is based on the true story of five brothers who served and died together as shipmates, and their family. It’s a story of patriotism, of grief and loss, and its penultimate moment will rip your heart out. Finally, it’s an American story.

The Sullivans are a proud, close-knit Irish Catholic family living in Waterloo, Iowa. Patriarch Tom (played by Thomas Mitchell ) is a loyal railroad man whose five sons (George, Frank, Joe, Matt, and Al) climb the water tower every day to wave goodbye as the train pulls out. Mother Alleta (Selena Royale) keeps the family fires burning, with the help of daughter Gen. The scrappy brothers are a pint-sized version of the Dead End Kids, getting into mischief like a Donnybrook with neighborhood kids on little Al’s (future Disney star Bobby Driscoll ) First Communion day, getting caught smoking corn silk in the woodshed (Pop’s solution is to give them each a real cigar, causing the boys to throw up), and sailing on the lake in a leaky vessel that capsizes (foreshadowing things to come). Despite the boy’s boisterous nature and their various misadventures, the Sullivan household is filled with warmth and love.

Time marches on, and the boys are now in their twenties. Al, the youngest, surprises the family by marrying sweet-as-pie Katherine Mary (a young Anne Baxter), and presenting the Sullivans with their first grandbaby. One winter’s day, news comes over the radio: “The Japs bombed Pearl Harbor!” While Mom phones a local woman whose son was stationed on the U.S.S Arizona, the brothers decide then and there to join the Navy. Brother Al feels left out, having a wife and baby to look after, until brave Katherine Mary reluctantly talks him into signing up. Tom and Alleta proudly display a flag with five stars in their window.

The boys are all together on the U.S.S. Juneau off the Solomon Islands, and get their first taste of action. George is wounded during the raging battle, and the ship is fatally hit. Ordered to abandon ship, the Sullivans won’t leave without taking George, who’s in sick bay. In the midst of all this chaos, the screen abruptly turns to black.

We’re back home in Iowa, where the Sulivans get a visit from Cmdr. Robinson (Ward Bond).  He’s the bearer of bad news, and when Alleta asks which of her sons is gone, he solemnly replies: “All five”. Gen and Katherine Mary leave the room in tears, while Alleta sits stoically, her face in shock. Tom hears the train whistle blow and excuses himself, dutifully making the slow walk to work in silence, his face a mask of anguish and torment, his head bowed low. He boards the train as it steadily moves past the tower, looking up as if expecting to see his children there one more time. He gives it a small salute as he passes before finally breaking down in tears. It is one of the most heart wrenching scenes in cinema, and beautifully underplayed by Mitchell.

The real five Sullivan brothers (left to right) Joe, Frank, Al, Matt, and George

What really happened to the five Sullivan brothers? On November 13, 1942, the Juneau sank after being hit by a Japanese torpedo. Navy brass ordered all ships in the vicinity to leave and avoid any further Japanese submarine strikes. Frank, Joe, and Matt were all killed instantly. Al, adrift in the ocean, drowned the following day. Eldest brother George survived four or five days on a life raft but, grief-stricken and delirious from hypernatremia (high salt content in the blood), jumped overboard. The parents were not informed until Alleta wrote a letter to FDR. On January 12, 1943, three Naval officials knocked on the door of the Sullivan home to relay the bad news: “All five”.

Today we celebrate the life and legacy of those brave souls who fought and died in service to our country and our way of life. Brave souls like George, Frank, Joe, Matt, and Al Sullivan. We salute their courage and the sacrifices they made, yet let’s not forget the loved ones left behind, and the sacrifices they made as well. Whether you’re chowing on hot dogs and cheeseburgers at a family cookout, or cheering at your local parade, or just kicking back and watching a ballgame, take a moment today to reflect on those who gave all in defense of freedom. And to maybe say a prayer for the loved ones left behind.

(This post is respectfully dedicated to the brave men and women who gave their lives to the ideals of Freedom and Liberty)