movie review: guadalcanal diary

Just finished watching this, and it's definitely a new favorite.  I loved the banter, the action, the emotion, and a bunch of other things.  It was great to see a chaplain portrayed with respect for once.  Richard Conte did an amazing job of acting, as usual, and I wanted to hug him. (Same as every other film I've seen him in, though it's always for a different reason.  Here, because he looked so depressed most of the time.)  I'll be watching this again soon!

Filmed just months after the actual allied invasion of Guadalcanal late in 1942, this patriotic feature follows a ragtag group of Marines sent to fight in the South Pacific. As steely Sgt. Malone (Lloyd Nolan), Brooklyn wiseguy Potts (William Bendix) and the teenaged Anderson (Richard Jaeckel) prepare for battle, they are taken aback when they initially meet no resistance. Rattled by stealthy Japanese snipers, the Marines struggle to stay alive as they plan a major offensive against the enemy.


Yesterday I was bored, so I searched my family’s war movie collection for anything that might be good/relatively short for a cloudy afternoon, and came across Guadalcanal Diary.  My brothers had watched it back when they were obsessed with all things military (and especially WWII), and while I hadn’t been very impressed by the trailer, I decided to give it a go.  After all, it stars Richard Conte.  So, I watched it and ended up liking it so much that I re-watched it with Elisabeth that same evening (she liked it too).  WWII films made during the war are interesting, because you can really get a feel for the mindset during that era (which can sometimes be a bad thing, though – I’d say Guadalcanal Diary is one of the most racist war films I’ve ever watched) and I love the ‘Victory Bonds – Buy Yours Today’ thingy that always appears at the end credits.

Two of the biggest war movie cliches are utilized to their fullest extent in this film: 1) Read the plot summary.  ‘Brooklyn wiseguy’?  There seems to be one in every war movie and TV show.  But Potts is still an okay character, despite his clichedness (is that a word?), and he delivers a long, serious soliloquy near the end of the film, which breaks the mold a little.  2) If any soldier has a wife, children, or a sweetheart back home, he’ll be dead before nightfall.  Proven fact.  And that’s exactly what happens with Captain Cross.  However, there is one part of Guadalcanal Diary that I really appreciated, one that turned an old cliche on its head, and that was the respectful portrayal of the company (platoon? unit?) chaplain, Donnelly.  He wasn’t included for laughs, he wasn’t weak or bumbling, or anything of the sort.  He’s brave and humorous and dependable.  One of my favorite characters.

While I’m on the subject of favorite characters, there’s also Captain Davis, who’s played by Richard Conte.  The first role I saw Conte in was The Purple Heart, which led to my watching Ocean’s 11 (and loving it, as Maxwell Smart would say), closely followed by A Walk In The Sun (he’s adorable in that one).  I love every role I’ve seen him in so far, and my favorite is a toss-up between Davis and Rivera (his character in AWITS).  Probably Davis, because Conte does such a superb acting job; at the beginning, Davis is happy and thoughtful and cocky all at the same time, but after Cross dies, he gets thinner and more depressed with each successive scene, which breaks my heart, but Conte did amazing work with the role.  I want to hug Davis, because he is so lonely and sad. (Although we do get to see a beautiful smile from him right at the end, which cheered me up immensely.)

Funny scenes are mixed in with the serious ones, but there’s never any jarring disparity between the hilarious and the poignant.  One of my favorite bits is when the mail comes in (I looove mail call in war movies and TV shows, ’cause everyone’s always so happy and excited).  A few other parts I enjoyed are the World Series scene, the ‘lazy Sunday on the ship’ sequence, arrival of replacements (twice!), and Anthony Quinn’s harmonica playing. (Or, rather, his character’s harmonica playing – I don’t know if Quinn can actually play.)  Narration pervades Guadalcanal Diary, starting off almost every scene, and while it does get rather melodramatic at times, I’m glad it was included, because it gives the film a you-are-there atmosphere.

Overall, I’d recommend Guadalcanal Diary for any fan of old WWII movies.  Like I mentioned earlier, it’s very racist in parts, but I think the good outweighs the bad.  There’s action, humor, emotion, and a great ending (patriotic and triumphant, of course, but not over the top).

Have you seen Guadalcanal Diary?  What did you think of it?



5 thoughts on “movie review: guadalcanal diary

  1. Hey, Eva, quick question: What exactly happens during a mail call? I know this sounds like a weird question, but the thing is, I’m writing a WWII novel and I suddenly realized I don’t know exactly how they get their mail. Also, would it be different for if you’re on a ship vs. an air base, for instance? Cause my characters are at a USAAF base in England.
    Thanks! If you don’t know all the answers, that’s totally fine too–I’ll just do some more digging.


    • I believe, depending on where you were, the mail would either come by plane or by sea, with the Navy and the Airforce sharing the load. From some comments made by the characters in Guadalcanal Diary, I’m pretty sure they got theirs by sea (or possibly a Navy plane), but I’m not really all that clear on the ins and outs of mail delivery. If your characters are in England, not overseas, mail would probably come in every day. In the Pacific, North Africa, or the European theatre, I’m pretty sure there were lots of delays (hence, everyone’s excitement at mail call).


  2. Nope, haven’t seen this, but if Richard Jaeckel is a good guy in it, I should! He’s always stuck being a bad guy, it seems. Okay, not always, but too often.

    I didn’t know you’d seen Ocean’s 11! I’m very fond of that movie 🙂 Dean Martin is my 2nd-fave singer, and such a fun actor, and the whole movie is adorably enjoyable.


    • I’m sure you’d enjoy it. From the reviews I’ve read, it’s been called one of the most realistic war movies made during the era (as in, not blatant propaganda), and even if there are some cliches (one I forgot to mention was ‘random soldier says “There probably isn’t a Jap within ten miles of here” and instantly gets shot by a sniper’), it’s a good movie.

      Yep, I’ve seen it recently. The first time I watched it, back when I was a little younger, I didn’t care for it at all because the whole thing was all talk and no action (or so it seemed to me). Now I can appreciate all the fun dialogue much better. 🙂 Dean Martin is great!


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