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?