First seen in theaters just ten months since the end of the actual Guadalcanal campaign, 'Diary' at the time must have been an eye-opener for audiences. As much as a movie in 1943 could, it tried to show what the day-to-day life of a Marine fighting on an enemy-held island was really like. With an almost documentary feel to the movie, it shows the relationships that develop, the bond having fought and survived combat, the fears and desires of the soldiers who just want to go home. Anything original in there as pertaining to war movies, specifically WWII movies? Nope, not at all, but in 1943 I bet it was a hit for audiences. Even now, having seen the same formula done repeatedly since, I can still see the appeal.
It's late summer 1942 in the South Pacific and on-board a troop transport is a battalion of Marines waiting to receive their orders. The men wait anxiously and excitedly, wanting to get the fighting going but also scared of what it possibly represents. Among these men is Capt. Davis (Richard Conte) and his company, a melting pot of Americans serving together to help defeat the Axis powers. Finally the orders come through with an objective, the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomons. The Marines will hit the beaches first, hoping to drive inland and capture a recently built Japanese airfield. The beach landing goes smooth, but that will be the easiest part of the campaign. Waiting for more supplies and reinforcements to arrive, the Marines go to work, clearing the island inch by inch and cave by cave of Japanese defenders.
This is one of the first examples I can think of for a well-worn and familiar war sub-genre, the "unit picture," a story told from the perspective of a squad, platoon, company, battalion and so on. Here the group is a little smaller, but they mostly manage to rise above their cardboard cutouts of characters. William Bendix plays Taxi Potts, a Brooklyn native always wondering what's going on back home. Preston Foster is Father Donnelly, the stoic, calm and trustworthy priest, Lloyd Nolan is Sgt. Hook Malone, the reliable and tough platoon sergeant, Anthony Quinn is Suarez, the Latino ladies man, and Richard Jaeckel -- just 17 at the time -- plays Pvt. Chicken Anderson, the youngster of the group. Conte is solid as the company commander, rivals and friends with a fellow commander, Capt. Cross (Roy Roberts). Of the group, Nolan especially stands out as does Jaeckel in his film debut. I also could have sworn I saw John Hodiak briefly, but I can't find info on it anywhere.
From director Lewis Seiler, this is a movie based off a book from war correspondent Richard Tregaskis and his experiences during the Guadalcanal campaign. Because it is based off what he actually saw, the depiction of the Marines is realistic without too many exaggerations. Some five months of fighting has to be crammed into a 93-minute movie so some jumps are made but nothing major is cut. My one complaint comes from transitioning Tregaskis' book to the big screen. In an effort to stay true to his book, a fair share of narration rolls over the movie, moving the story along with some wordy passages that don't always fit. They're very stiff and reminded me of a pretentious student reading his paper, incredibly proud of how good it is. The narration tries too hard to impress us with its intelligence and depth but never quite gets there.
What separates 'Guadalcanal' from some other WWII movies actually released in the war is the reality of it, the believable nature of the whole thing. Certain scenes ring true because it's easy to believe a soldier doing this action or having this thought. Before the battle, HQ discusses burial details for the upcoming fight, putting a dark cloud on the horizon right away. It is a quick scene (maybe 15 seconds tops), but in its simplicity and powerful message, it stands out. The night before the Marines hit the beach, Bendix's Taxi is dancing like a Hawaiian hula girl, stopping when he sees Foster's Father Donnelly watching. Donnelly senses the nerves, the fear, the terror in the room and joins Taxi in an Irish dance much to the delight of the rest of the men.
There's more though that keep coming to mind. Baby-faced Jaeckel's Chicken claims to have a girlfriend back home but it's really just his mother. We get a quick glimpse of one of her letters to her son, a perfect little moment as she tells what's going on back home. His response back is equally moving as he tries to comfort his parents, convincing them that he's okay and doing well. By far though, the best scene has the platoon waiting out a bombing raid in a small, cramped dugout. Bendix's Taxi Potts explains his feelings on prayer, God, and the hell of their situation. Bendix often got typecast as the lovable galoot, but he shows his skill here, delivering an incredible montage about soldiering, dying and hopefully, surviving. It's a powerful moment, one of many in this underrated WWII movie.
Guadalcanal Diary <---trailer (1943): ***/****