There's an important thing to keep in mind when watching any film made in the United States about World War II, and especially those made during the war itself: it wasn't, physically, an American war. To the British, for six years, the war was a constant looming threat right across a terrifyingly thin stretch of water; for all the inhabitants of the European mainland and into Asia, it was an active, living, every-moment-of-every-day reality; the Japanese were, as the war dragged on, subject to bombings and eventually the most destructive offensive weapon ever used against a populated area. But no American citizen experienced the war firsthand - many lost loved ones to combat, of course, but whether walking down the street in New York City or planting corn in central Kansas, war was not a present fact, not the way it was for people routinely having to cower in darkness to avoid being bombed at not, or for people whose daily life involved seeing occupying soldiers marching through the street.

And so, more than we see in the film output of the other major combatants during the war years (and to be fair, the United States was a much friendlier place to make a movie at that point than most other places, where there was, after all, a war happening all around), the Hollywood war film has a kind of "you are there" feeling, trying to communicate the what of war as much as anything else. I bring this up because it's in this tradition that we find Wake Island, a ripped-from-the-headlines story released in August, 1942, and a film that could only possibly have been produced by American filmmakers. And not just because it's about Americans. The film is clearly designed, and was explicitly marketed, as a Never Forget! rallying cry, reminding its viewers of all the reasons why it's important that we keep fighting, putting them in the shoes of the men who died in the first U.S. battle of the Pacific Theater. It's an attempt to make the Japanese capture of Wake Island over the course of two weeks in December, 1941 equivalent to the fall of the Alamo or the sinking of the USS Maine, a vivid reminder of who we lost and what dastardly foreigners took them away from us. In short, a reminder for people to whom the war was still an abstraction, something that needed to be made concrete and alive.

The story of what happened on Wake Island wouldn't be known until the war had ended, so writers W.R. Burnett and Frank Butler, armed with the official records of the U.S. Marine Corps, invented a heroic Last Stand that is considerably less harrowing than what actually happened (brutal imprisonment and wanton execution of civilians); truth be told, the story of Wake Island is in most respects a fair generic bit of nobly hopeless fighting, and the characters involved even more generic. After some onscreen text situates the Battle of Wake Island in the context of other heroic wartime losses, and then some narration explains why the flyspeck atoll in the middle of nowhere had come to be so important over the years, we arrive in early December to find Major Geoffrey Caton (Brian Donlevy) of the USMC coming to Wake Island to take command of the tiny garrison there. Complete with the tender scene where he says goodbye to his family at Pearl Harbor and everything.

Caton's arrival is a seismic event for the Wake Island Marines, used to a casual, discipline-free regime of screwing around, complaining, and sleeping. Our two primary points of entry into this world are Private Joe Doyle (Robert Preston) and Private Aloysius "Smacksie" Randall (William Bendix), exceptional layabouts even by the lazy standards of the garrison. We get to know them in quick, broad strokes - the most essential fact about either is that Randall is set to be discharged and go home on 8 December - and they're played almost exclusively for comic relief despite being the characters we spend most of the first half with. So the question arises, what exactly they're supposed to be relieving. The other plot involves Caton sitting in an office and grouching at McClosky (Albert Dekker), the foreman for an all-civilian construction crew building the permanent base on the island; oh, how the military and the civilians do bicker and argue at all levels and on all subjects, just like the film wanted to show how when times get tough they can band together despite it all, teaching us all valuable lessons about non-military folks like you and I supporting the effort of our brave boys in uniform? Or somethin' like that, I dunno.

Eventually, a spectacularly untrustworthy Japanese diplomat (Richard Loo), depicted in visual language that make me feel racist just for describing it, arrives on Wake Island for a meeting with Caton, to assuage the Marines' fear of conflict with Japan. And this is the night before the Pearl Harbor attack. So when the news comes the following day, the Wake Islanders first reaction is confusion and disbelief that starts to shade into fear and distress, then to righteous anger when Japanese bombers approach the island. More than half of the film is taken up with the battle, and it's pretty successful: director John Farrow leads a pretty solid crew of whom virtually nobody is an A-lister, but the solidity of craftsmanship is hard to fault: there's a hell of a lot of effects work in the movie, and while the timing of some explosions is a bit off, the editing works overtime to stitch everything together in lengthy sequences of the most harrowing violence that you could get away with in 1942.

It's fairly exciting action cinema, though the film's central gambit - spend the first part of the movie getting to know the characters so that we'll feel more for them as they start to die - falls apart on the generally anemic, one-note characterisations and the lack of any particularly memorable performances besides Bendix as the doughy Everyguy (it was his third film of the first year of his career, and the one he got his only career Oscar nomination for). Besides which, the abrupt shift from broad comedy and light human drama to high-stakes action isn't handled well, even it's fairly obvious what the "point" was, to show how the war brutally interrupted these men's lives. That's smart and all, but it takes some balancing, and Farrow doesn't quite get there.

The bigger issue is the film's lightly exploitative touch: beyond the fact that it's based on history invented by the writers, there's something distasteful about a film that so earnestly and explicitly wants to serve as inspiration, an explanation of Why We Fight that will stir the soul, turning the deaths of men it's setting up as martyrs into fodder for rousing, but entirely amoral action cinema. And when I say explicit, I mean explicit:
"These Marines fought a great fight. They wrote history. But this is not the end. There are other leathernecks, other fighting Americans, 140 million of them, whose blood and sweat and fury will exact a just and terrible vengeance."
Those are the final words in the film, spoken by the narrator over images of soldiers marching, and that's just par for the course, propaganda-wise. But it's not a very pleasant shift from the gusto with which the film offers up those Marines dying surrounded by all sorts of impressively mounted explosions. It is a film of considerable bloodlust, basically, enthusiastically watching the deaths caused by the Japanese so that it can even more enthusiastically rhapsodise about killing those Japanese in turn. It's a distant film, in ways that undoubtedly served their purpose at the time, but make it hard not to feel like there's something awfully hollow about it all now, no matter how satisfactory the whole thing has been put together.

Wake Island, like so many other wartime films, is a time capsule: of attitudes, of filmmaking techniques. And it is a fascinating one on those grounds. But it's so unmistakably of its moment, agitating for a fight that was over a lifetime ago, that it hasn't remained lively like the best WWII movies. It's a fine, well-mounted piece of filmmaking, but there are plenty of action movies from every period of film history that aren't so invested in waving a bloody flag with such a weirdly small amount of restraint or - dare I say it - good taste. The film's historical value is immense in a number ways - cultural, military, aesthetic - but its historical value is by far the best thing it has going for it.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1942
-Song-and-dance man Gene Kelly makes his screen debut opposite Judy Garland in For Me and My Gal
-Walt Disney works with the U.S. State Department on making the animated film Saludos Amigos as part of an outreach program to South America
-Val Lewton begins his career as producer of horror B-pictures at RKO by overseeing Jacques Tourneur's Cat People

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1942
-Henri-Georges Clouzot makes his directorial debut, The Murderer Lives at Number 21, for the Nazi-controlled Continental Films
-David Lean and Noël Coward collaborate on the British Navy propaganda drama In Which We Serve
-The short war documentary Kokoda Front Line! is the first Australian film to win an Oscar