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.

Hell Bent for Vengeance: Randolph Scott in DECISION AT SUNDOWN (Columbia 1957)

I seem to have gained some new channels along with my new DirecTV receiver. I’m not sure why, but I won’t argue…  at least until I see the bill! One of them is Sony Movie Channel, featuring the Columbia Pictures catalog, and I recently viewed DECISION AT SUNDOWN, the third of seven Western collaborations between star Randolph Scott  and director Budd Boetticher. The plot and setting are simple, yet within that framework we get a tense psychological drama about a man consumed by vengeance and hatred.

Scott, still cutting a dashing figure at age 59, plays Bart Allison, who along with his pal Sam, ride into the town of Sundown on the day of Tate Kimbrough’s wedding to Lucy Summerton. Bart’s not there to offer his congratulations though; he announces his intention to kill town boss Tate. The reason: Bart holds Tate responsible for his wife’s suicide three years ago. Bart and Sam then hole up in the livery stable while Tate’s hand-picked sheriff and his men force a stand-off.

To reveal any more of the narrative would be doing a disservice to those who haven’t seen this little gem. Suffice it to say, there’s more to the story than meets the eye. The film is expertly put together by Boetticher, DP Burnett Guffey (Oscar winner for FROM HERE TO ETERNITY and BONNIE & CLYDE), and editor Al Clark (ALL THE KING’S MEN, 3:10 TO YUMA ), keeping the suspense tight as possible. Boetticher was a talented director who marched to the beat of his own drum. A trained bullfighter, his breakthrough film was 1951’s THE BULLFIGHTER AND THE LADY. He directed the frequently overlooked noir THE KILLER IS LOOSE (1956) before embarking on his seven Scott Westerns, then spent over a decade filming and finding financing for his documentary on Mexican matador Carlos Arruza, finally getting a 1972 release. An most interesting man, Boetticher died in 2001.

Scott gives an outstanding performance as Allison, driven by his lust for vengeance. Bart Allison is both a man of principal and tragic figure, and Scott maintains his balance between the two using few words, showing not telling. It’s a difficult role, but Randolph Scott pulls it off in his own inimitable style. His chemistry with Noah Beery Jr, playing loyal friend Sam, is palpable; one can only wish they’d made more films together. Tate Kimbrough is played by John Carroll, who looked and sounded so much like Clark Gable that MGM once tried to promote him as The Next Big Thing. He never quite caught on, probably because the resemblance was too close, and one Gable in Hollywood was enough. Carroll could hold his own in the acting department though, his best known films are probably GO WEST (with the Marx Bros), FLYING TIGERS (with John Wayne), and the Republic serial ZORRO RIDES AGAIN.

Rounding out the cast are Karen Steel (MARTY) as Lucy, Valerie French (JUBAL) as Tate’s former lover Ruby, John Archer ( ROCK AROUND THE CLOCK ) as the sympathetic town doctor, and Andrew Duggan ( THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET ) as the sheriff. Familiar Faces around town include veteran John Litel as Lucy’s father, Richard Deacon, Abel Fernandez, Bob Steele, Vaughn Taylor, Ray Teal, James Westerfield, and H.M. Wynant. If you haven’t watched any of the seven Scott/Boetticher Westerns, you’re missing out on some great filmmaking, and DECISION AT SUNDOWN makes a good  place to start.