The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, April 13, 2015

Destination Gobi

For every war film documenting a huge world-turning event like Saving Private Ryan, The Longest Day, A Bridge too Far, there are hundreds and thousands of other stories out there waiting to be told. And sometimes, it's good just to have a change of pace. These aren't stories that impacted thousands and millions of people or even altered the course of history. But as I've said before, dig a little and you'll always find some cool, very unique stories. Case in point, a 1953 World War II flick called Destination Gobi.

It's well into 1944 and with the tide of war officially turned toward the Allies, Chief Petty Officer Samuel McHale (Richard Widmark) is readying himself to head back into the fighting at Okinawa as part of the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise. Well, that was his plan at least. He receives orders to report to a new office with an odd but very dangerous mission. McHale is going to be posted at a remote outpost in the Gobi Desert deep in Mongolia with a seven-man "garrison" tasked with observing weather patterns and how they will impact the fighting across the Pacific. The longtime Navy man wants nothing to do with the orders but ever the resolute soldier, he follows his duty and travels deep into the desert. Always used to having a ship's deck under his feet and water on all sides, McHale must adjust quickly at Argos Camp 6. Extremely isolated, the small camp must deal with limited/lousy supplies and growing rumors that Japanese forces are trying to find and destroy the camp (one of six all over the desert). McHale and the men must brace for what's coming, and oddly enough, a nomadic Mongol tribe that could help them.

What an interesting premise. I'll get into some details and depth in a bit, but the premise for 'Gobi' is incredibly interesting, and supposedly a true story. An opening title card introduces the basic premise as listed in Navy records as 'Saddle for Gobi.' Is it true? I hope. It's certainly fun to watch. From director Robert Wise, this is a World War II story far removed from the European battlefront and the island-hopping strategy of the Pacific fighting. It turns into far more of a survival story with some odd detours thrown in along the way. 'Gobi' covers a lot of ground in its 90-minute running time to the point I'd say it loses some of its effectiveness by the end credits. For the most part though, the ride is always fun and interesting, including some solid performances from an up and coming cast.

Start with Richard Widmark in a part that feels similar to several roles he did during the early 1950s as he carved out a niche and reputation for himself, many of them for 20th Century Fox. He specialized early on in manly roles like this, a tough guy leading other tough guys in movies like Halls of Montezuma, The Frogmen, and Take the High Ground!. Widmark spent years trying to distance himself from villainous roles like Kiss of Death that helped put him on the map, but he certainly did a good job. As Navy lifer Samuel McHale, Widmark is the strong, solid and resolute leader of Men who wants nothing more than to survive, to get through this hellish situation and to get his men through it too, even if it isn't his ideal posting. He's one of my favorite actors anyways, and this is a solid lead role.

Who else to look for at this isolated weather station in the sand-swept Gobi desert? Some familiar faces (and voices) to round out the inexperienced crew. The group includes Don Taylor as McHale's right-hand man, Max Showalter as the fast-talking ladies man of sorts, Darryl Hickman, Martin Milner, Ross Bagdasarian (creator of Alvin and the Chipmunks), Russell Collins, and an uncredited Earl Holliman. We don't learn much about the crew, just some off-hand comments about their backgrounds. Still, I liked the dynamic among the group as their scenes early-on show that natural, affable back-and-forth that seems realistic among men forced to get through such a difficult posting like the middle of the Gobi desert hundreds of miles from any sort of help. Nothing flashy, but some good parts.

 It then proceeds to fall apart a touch because....well, because. An interesting angle is added when a tribe of nomadic Mongols, led by Kengtu (Murvyn Vye), a chieftain always looking out for the best interest of his people. At first, that involves helping the desert-bound American sailors and then it doesn't and then it does. The story proceeds to bounce around a ton among the survivors, their bickering, the Mongols, the patrolling Japanese and a surprising interlude across the Chinese border into a Japanese-held village. With just 90 minutes to do its thing, 'Gobi' simply tackles too much. In the last 20 minutes, things really fall apart. Is it the truth of the story behind the Navy files? Have things been stretched a little bit? Also look for Rodolfo Acosta, Judy Dan and Leonard Strong as some of Kengtu's tribesmen and tribeswomen.

A mixed bag in the end, but a mostly positive mixed bag. Now if they could just have fixed that last act!

Destination Gobi (1953): ** 1/2 /****

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