WWII was a different time. Far from opposing the war, Hollywood went out of its way to support not just the troops, but the war effort in general. Today, the very idea of a Marine Corps produced film winning an Academy Award sounds far-fetched, yet it happened. A film like With the Marines in Tarawa would probably be derided as “jingoistic” by today’s documentary establishment, but it won the Oscar for best documentary short in 1945. Still an eye-opening account of the fighting conditions in the Pacific Theater, Tarawa airs next Tuesday on the Documentary Channel as part of Oscar’s Picks, their month-long festival of Oscar nominated and winning documentaries.
Part of the Gilbert Islands, the Tarawa atoll is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, but it suddenly took on enormous strategic significance as potential refueling base for American forces. It was brutal and costly, but digging out the Japanese entrenched on Tarawa was an important victory in the fight against the Axis. Indeed, the warfighting scenes in Tarawa were so visceral, special dispensation was needed from Pres. Roosevelt to allow the film into commercial theaters.
Directed by an uncredited Louis Hayward (the British actor, considered a poor man’s Errol Flynn, who enlisted in the U.S.M.C. following Pearl Harbor), Tarawa was filmed by a special team of military correspondents who were very definitely in harm’s way themselves. Like the rediscovered footage assembled in the History Channel special mini-series WWII in HD¸ the Tarawa crew was shooting color stock, which might seem washed out by contemporary standards, but was dramatic at the time.
War is Hell. That is pretty much the essence of Tarawa’s message. Rather than focusing on individual servicemen, Tarawa stresses the unity of the Corps and the costly price they paid for the sake of ultimate victory. Indeed, it was a different time, when it would not have been necessary to “personalize” the war.
Surprisingly straight forward, Tarawa is a film of tremendous historical importance everyone should see, and at a mere twenty minutes or so, it is hardly represents a major time investment. Yes, it is patriotic (and why shouldn’t it be?), but at its core, it is a tribute to the sacrifice of the Marines who died taking Tarawa. Tarawa airs on the Documentary Channel this coming Tuesday (3/9) and is also widely available for online screening.