Film Reviews (Seriously) – THE FIGHTING SEABEES
Classic film fans are quick to use the term “essential” when recommending to the uninitiated what classic films to watch. Even cable network Turner Classic Movies airs films they call The Essentials every Saturday night. But for me, calling something “essential” is no different than calling something “beautiful” or “delicious” or “funny” or any other adjective that is, at its core, subjective. And even though the Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary lists one definition of the word “essential” as “of the utmost importance,” an essential is still only of the utmost importance to the person who deems it as such.
So while most would agree that films like The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, and others are essential, once you get about … what? … two-dozen films deep into the list, the list becomes completely subjective and, more importantly, completely unassailable, because really, who is anyone to criticize anyone else on what they consider to be essential? With that, in addition to the films listed above and many others made in the decades since, I add to my list of essential films Edward Ludwig’s The Fighting Seabees (1944).
John Wayne stars as Wedge Donovan, a nationally known and well-respected civilian contractor who is hired by the Navy to build airstrips, buildings, and such, in support of military efforts in the South Pacific during World War II. As the film opens, Donovan greets a team of his men at a U.S. dock as they return from their latest job. It’s here that he learns that several of his men were injured or killed during the mission, primarily because they were unarmed and thus greatly challenged in defending themselves when attacked by Japanese soldiers.
Donovan takes the issue to Lt. Commander Robert Yarrow (Dennis O’Keefe), who explains to him that the rules of war do not allow the arming of civilians assisting the military. Both men recognize this rule as problematic, and begin negotiations to recruit construction workers into the Navy for the purpose of being builders (not sailors) who can be armed. This solution will keep the Navy’s needs satisfied and keep Donovan’s men protected, but the Navy brass insists that the workers go through formal military training, an idea that the stubborn Donovan dismisses as unnecessary, citing the fact that his men are tougher than anything the Navy can produce. Talks stall but the work continues until further tragedy occurs, this time as a direct result of a decision made in the field by Donovan. This wake-up call motivates Donovan to follow the Navy’s requirements to train and arm his men, and learn proper military leadership skills for himself. Thus the Seabees are born. (“Seabees” is the phonetic spelling of “CBs,” an acronym for “Construction Battalions.”)
The Fighting Seabees is one of a countless number of war pictures that the studios cranked out in an effort to rouse the American spirit at home while making a few bucks at the box office. Battle action is presented and some stock military footage is occasionally inserted, but that footage has no real emotional or dramatic impact. Woven into the story of military conflict between the Axis and the Allies is a story of personality conflict between know-it-all hothead Donovan and by-the-book sailor Yarrow. There is some emotional conflict too, as found in the (obligatory) love triangle among Donovan, Yarrow, and Constance Chesley (Susan Hayward). Chesley was Yarrow’s girl until Donovan came along, creating the typical “oh-who-do-I-truly-love?” dilemma for the female lead. Hayward is beautiful and Wayne looks handsome and manly in his officer’s uniform, but is is all so very formulaic.
It’s interesting to note how much this film reminds me of Michael Bay’s Armageddon (1998). Seriously. Think about it: civilian specialists in a given field (The Fighting Seabees‘ construction workers vs. Armageddon’s oil drillers), some with odd names (Wedge, Ding, and Joe Brick vs. Chick, Bear, and Rockhound), are led by a hotheaded boss (Duke vs. Bruno) and recruited by the government (Navy vs. NASA) to handle a volatile situation (World War II vs. a giant asteroid on course to collide with earth) using their given skills, and not everyone in the ragtag group survives (no spoilers here), even though they receive the required training. See what I mean? I won’t go so far as to say that the classic inspired the modern, but the similarities are at least interesting.
So why is The Fighting Seabees essential to me? My grandfather. Charles L. Harrison was born in 1919 and we recently passed what would have been his 94th birthday. His proudest accomplishments in his life were his marriage to my grandmother, his four children, his six grandchildren and (still growing brood of) great-grandchildren, and his service to his country during World War II as a Fighting Seabee. The first time I watched this film, it was on an old VHS copy that I had given to my grandfather as a gift some years before his passing in 1998, a copy that had been produced from an unrestored (and it showed) print. It was one of his favorite movies for obvious reasons, and because of that it became one of mine.
When I was a kid, my grandfather told me many war stories, most of which I sadly cannot recall. I’ve pieced together some information, but I still lack that feel for what my grandfather did during the war. This film fills in some of that.
I know, I know. “Historical” films are rarely historically accurate in total. I understand that. I’ve even written about it. But sometimes … sometimes … romanticization trumps reality and the spirit of history transcends the letter of history. With that, I know that I’m certainly not going to win a quiz show based on what The Fighting Seabees has taught me, but at least I now have a taste of what it was like for my grandfather and his shipmates, and that suits me just fine.
Thanks, old buddy. Thanks not only for sharing this movie with me at a time in my life when all I wanted to do was watch every old movie I could find (in the pre-TCM days), thanks for reminding me that not every film needs depth to move a viewer, and that the number of stars a critic gives a film can never measure what that film might mean to the viewer.