Wake Island (film)

Wake Island is a 1942 American action drama propaganda war film directed by John Farrow, written by W. R. Burnett and Frank Butler, and starring Brian Donlevy, Robert Preston, Macdonald Carey, Albert Dekker, Barbara Britton, and William Bendix. The film tells the story of the United States military garrison on Wake Island and the onslaught by the Japanese following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Wake Island
Directed byJohn Farrow
Produced byJoseph Sistrom
Written byW. R. Burnett
Frank Butler
StarringBrian Donlevy
Robert Preston
William Bendix
Music byDavid Buttolph
CinematographyWilliam C. Mellor
Theodor Sparkuhl
Edited byFrank Bracht
LeRoy Stone
Paramount Pictures
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release date
  • August 11, 1942 (1942-08-11) (United States)
Running time
88 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$3.5 million (US rentals)[2][3]

It was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (William Bendix), Best Director, Best Picture and Best Writing, Original Screenplay.

The film shows how the Marines, after being pounded for days by Japanese aircraft, caught the Japanese invasion by complete surprise by unleashing a wall of fire that stopped the first attempt by the Japanese to land on the island. The next attack was successful in part because communications between the Marines had been cut, leading the Marine commander to believe his three hundred marines were being slaughtered by the over three thousand Japanese invaders. As a result of the fierce defense of the island and that a Japanese cruiser was sunk, Marines were beheaded on the way to Japan to work as slaves in the mines in Japan.


A map is shown with a voiceover giving a brief history of the United States military on Wake Island to November 1941. U.S. Marine Corps Major Geoffrey Caton departs Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii aboard the Pan American Clipper to take over command on Wake Island. A military contractor, Mr. McClosky, is also going there. The two clash during the flight.

Upon arrival, Caton inspects the island and identifies Privates Randall and Doyle as troublemakers. He has them dig a large slit trench by hand. McClosky has a construction contract for large trenches and living quarters, and drives his crew to complete the work on time. There are numerous conflicts between the military and the civilians, including practicing for air raids.

The next day is Sunday, December 7, 1941. Randall prepares to board the Clipper, as he is leaving the service. Then news arrives about the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor. The island goes on alert. Randall is unsure what to do. He is sent to a bomb shelter with the civilians as enemy planes approach. The Americans have only four fighters in the air, holding eight in reserve, against 24 Japanese bombers. Marine fighters shoot down several Japanese planes, but the bombers inflict heavy damage. Following the raid, Caton tells Randall he is no longer a civilian. McClosky decides to stay and dig trenches and other shelters with his heavy equipment. That night, Caton informs pilot Lieutenant Bruce Cameron that his wife was killed at Pearl Harbor.

The next day, enemy ships approach. The Marines camouflage their equipment. Caton orders his men into shelters and to hold their fire while the Japanese bombard the island. The Japanese signal the Americans to surrender. Caton does not answer. He waits until the enemy ships have closed to 4700 yards before returning fire, repelling the landing attempt and sinking several ships.

Cameron, on a reconnaissance flight, spots a Japanese heavy cruiser which can hit the island while remaining out of range of the defenders' weapons. He states he can take out that ship if his fighter is stripped down and carries only 15 gallons of fuel and a double load of bombs. Caton approves the mission. After successfully bombing the ship, Cameron is wounded by a Japanese fighter. He manages to land his airplane safely before dying.

Japanese planes bomb the island repeatedly.

Caton asks Captain Lewis to board a U.S. Navy patrol plane that is coming in, since he could provide intelligence to the U.S. Navy Department in Honolulu. Lewis refuses, but Caton orders him to go and file his official report.

Later, Caton is informed that the largest-caliber ammunition is running out, so he has smaller guns spread around, and repositions his available men. Japanese planes approach in large numbers, causing major damage and inflicting numerous casualties. Only one pilot is left, Captain Patrick. When his plane is damaged, he bails out, but is killed while parachuting down.

The Japanese again signal for surrender. Caton replies, "Come and get us." Eventually, Caton orders all posts to act independently. Communications fail. Caton orders the last man out of his command post with a written message, as McClosky walks in, asking for a weapon. They make their way to an abandoned machine-gun position. Caton mans the gun. The Japanese land and overrun the American positions. The main characters are all killed in action. Made in 1942, at the beginning of American entry into World War II, shortly after the battle itself, the film ends with a voiceover stating that "This is not the end."



The film was based on official Marine records and a copy of the script by W R Burnett and Frank Butler was sent to the marines for approval prior to filming.[5]

Director John Farrow had recently returned to Hollywood after being invalided out of the Canadian Navy. He was signed to make the film by Buddy DeSylva of Paramount who liked Ford's Five Came Back. Farrow had visited Wake Island during his pre-Hollywood sailing days.[6]

Filming started 23 March 1942.[7] Most of the Japanese were played by Filipinos.[8]

A special weapons detail of selected Marines from Camp Elliott, near San Diego, manned machine guns in land battle scenes. Marine crews were also used as extras and to operate equipment.[5]

Three main locations were used. Most exteriors were shot in the Salton Sea in the California desert; filming took place here for three weeks at Sandy Beach which resembled Wake Island. The aerial battles were filmed at the Great Salt Lake in Utah. The big guns were fired at a coastal firing range near San Diego.[9][10]

The film was a fictional account with Brian Donlevy's character being based on Major James P. S. Devereux, commander of the Wake Marine detachment. MacDonald Carey's was based on Major Henry T. Elrod and Captain Frank Cunningham. Walter Abel played the naval commander who in real life was Commander Winfield S. Cunningham.[5]

The film crew had to battle intense sand storms on Sand Island.[5] Following the location shoot the main unit returned to Paramount Studio for three weeks of shooting, while the second unit remained at Salton Sea under Hal Walker to do bombing scenes.[5]

After completing the film, Farrow signed a long term contract with Paramount.[11]

MacDonald Carey was so inspired by working on the film he went and joined the marines after filming ended.[5]



The film received positive reviews from critics. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called it "a film for which its makers deserve a sincere salute. Except for the use of fictional names and a very slight contrivance of plot, it might be a literal document of the manner in which the Wake detachment of Marines fought and died in the finest tradition of their tough and indomitable corps."[12]

Variety agreed and called it "one of the most striking pictures of the year ... Never is there pandering to phoney flag-waving, always just a group of normal human beings who knew of no other course than fighting to the end."[13]

Harrison's Reports called it "Thrilling ... The realism of the Japanese attacks, and the stout defense put up by the Marines, are spine-chilling battle scenes that hold one in constant suspense, even though one is aware of the final outcome."[14] Film Daily called it a "Stirring epic which will thrill the nation."[15]

Wake Island placed fourth on Film Daily's year-end nationwide poll of 592 critics selecting the best films of 1942.[16]


John Farrow won the New York Film Critics' Award for Best Director.[17]

Box Office

In addition to the critical acclaim, it was also one of the biggest box office hits of the year.[3]

A radio play drama version featuring many of the same film actors was broadcast October 26, 1942 on the Lux Radio Theatre, hosted by Cecil B. DeMille on the CBS radio network.


  1. "Wake Island". American Film Institute. Retrieved January 7, 2016.
  2. "101 Pix Gross in Millions" Variety 6 Jan 1943 p 58
  3. Thomas Schatz, Boom and Bust: American Cinema in the 1940s Uni of California Press, 1999 p 243
  4. Baseball Reference, https://www.baseball-reference.com/register/player.fcgi?id=connor001kev
  5. Production notes on picture "WAKE ISLAND". (1942). Marine Corps Gazette (Pre-1994), 26(3), 34-35,48-49. Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/206293139
  6. Schallert, E. (1942, Feb 09). DRAMA. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/165314488
  7. By Telephone to THE NEW,YORK TIMES. (1942, Feb 21). SCREEN NEWS HERE AND IN HOLLYWOOD. New York Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/106166001
  8. Hedda hopper's HOLLYWOOD. (1942, May 02). Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/165346945
  9. Palm Springs Visitors Center. "Coachella Valley Feature Film Production 1920–2011". Filming in Palm Springs. Palm Springs, CA. Archived from the original on October 1, 2012. Retrieved October 1, 2012.Download (Downloadable PDF file)
  10. 'WAKE ISLAND,' COLORADO. (1942, Aug 02). New York Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/106260077
  11. By Telephone to THE NEW,YORK TIMES. (1942, Jul 29). Gene kelly to be starred with lana turner at metro in 'nothing ventured'. New York Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/106271800
  12. Crowther, Bosley (September 2, 1942). "Movie Review – Wake Island". The New York Times. Retrieved January 7, 2016.
  13. "Film Reviews". Variety. New York: Variety, Inc. August 12, 1942. p. 8.
  14. "'Wake Island' with Brian Donlevy, Macdonald Carey and Robert Preston". Harrison's Reports: 130. August 15, 1942.
  15. "Reviews of the New Films". Film Daily. New York: Wid's Films and Film Folk, Inc.: 6 August 12, 1942.
  16. "'Miniver' Wins Critics Poll". Film Daily. New York: Wid's Films and Film Folk, Inc.: 1 January 13, 1943.
  17. FILM CRITICS PICK 'IN WHICH WE SERVE'. (1942, Dec 30). New York Times (1923-Current File) Retrieved from https://search.proquest.com/docview/106319360
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