Fighting Seabees (1944): Wayne's Second Screen Death

A crucial element in John Wayne’s war heroes is their rebellious nature and independent streak. Wayne’s leaders are often too spontaneous, even impulsive, willing to disobey orders if they think their decision is morally right and an action is needed. Wayne’s heroes want to fight on the front; they hate desk work.

In this respect, Wayne's heroes stands in diametric opposition to William F. Whyte's “Organization Man,” the conformist who goes by the book and adjusts himself to the organization's rules by doing all things “the company way.”

Wayne's construction engineer Wedge Donovan in Edward Ludwig’s “The Fighting Seabees” helps to organize the Navy’s Construction Battalion, the Fighting Seabees (C.B), the special fighting units of civilian workers in the South Pacific. Donovan, who gets impatient with the red tape of filling out daily progress reports, is told by Lieutenant Commander Bob Yarrow (Dennis O’Keefe) to disregard the Japanese snipers and to focus on construction.

Compared with Yarrow, Donovan is hot-tempered and impatient with the enemy. He continues to obey orders until his friend is killed, then in defiance of the rules, he orders his men to fight back. However, Donovan's stubbornness causes the death of many men, for which he is held responsible.

Yarrow charges, Every civilian here was wounded or killed because a fool wouldn’t obey orders,” and Donovan has to admit, “I was wrong, rotten wrong.” Guilt-ridden, he redeems himself in a one-man action which costs him his life but succeeds in saving the important oil tanks. Donovan devises a one-man solution, strapping dynamite to the front of a bulldozer and driving it forward to ram into one of the oil tanks, exploding it to spread a flame and engulf the enemy. On the way, he is struck by an enemy bullet, but the bulldozer goes right on.

It’s noteworthy, that “The Fighting Seabees” represents Wayne’s only second death on screen, in a heroic sacrifice and expiation of past mistakes.

As usual with most Hollywood War pictures, the romantic subplot, here a romance with Susan Hayward, feels like a distraction and is not convincing, included in the plot to attract female viewers.

Oscar Nominations: 1

Scoring (Dramatic or Comedy): Walter Scharf and Roy Webb

Oscar Context:

The winner was Max Steiner for the sentimental family melodrama, “Since You Went Away.”

Cast

Wedge Donovan (John Wayne)
Lt. Commander Robert Yarrow (Dennis O’Keefe)
Constance Chesley (Susan Hayward)
Eddie Powers (William Frawley)
Johnny Navasky (Leonid Kinskey)
Sawyer Collins (J. M. Kerrigan)
Whangler Spreckles (Grant Withers)
Ding Jacobs (Paul Fix)

Credits

Running time: 100 Minutes

Distributed by Republic
Director Edward Ludwig
Screenplay: Borden Chase, Aeneas MacKenzie, from a story by Chase
Camera: William Bradford
Music: Walter Scharf

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