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With the Marines at Tarawa

Film Review by Dean Duncan Jun 16, 2015

Lorne Green and Walter Huston and Michael Redgrave have demonstrated how powerful and effective the narrated war propaganda doc can be. (Churchill’s Island, Why We Fight, A Diary for Timothy.) This film demonstrates how it is historically explainable and justifiable, but then, ultimately, really limited and inadequate.

Most everything here is affirmative and almost cheery, at least on the sound track. Never is heard a discouraging word, while this provocative space, rendered in beautiful colour, plays host to havoc. Then there’s the portrayal of the foe. Japs, Nips—”they’re savage fighters. Their lives mean nothing to them.” Maybe they had to cut the clothes off of their prisoners, but do they have to include the footage? Also, this won an Oscar? For the time and the situation, maybe, but not for the film. That kind of thing happens all the time, actually. These results are not invalid, or insignificant. They just don’t have much to do with a film’s final merit. We should remember this each year that we tune in to their awards program, as if it were true or something.

That’s at first. To be fair, the reality does bleed through eventually, partly due to the people who eventually assembled this film. “Many of these men were killed the following morning.” And, stunningly: “these marines are dead.” There they are, the poor kids! Shocking then and always, tenderly sorrowful. “Short days ago they loved, felt dawn, saw sunset glow…” And the Nips too, no? The film is definitely flawed. But still, despite its gaps and lapses, even because of them, it’s utterly justifiable.