The invasion of Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942, launched the Solomon Islands Campaign, what you could consider the middle stage or second act of the Second World War in the Pacific. The fight in the Solomons was, in many ways, the real war in the Pacific Theater of Operations. This was the period in which the two sides were closely matched and the outcome of the war was actually at stake. After this campaign, the remainder of the war largely consisted of a Japanese holding action against the United States’ inexorable march west toward the Home Islands.
This adaptation of war correspondent Richard Tregaskis’ non-fiction book about the early stages of the battle is reverential, faithful to the facts but clichéd and lacking in realistic drama. The Marines in this movie seem more like a Cub Scout troop in an episode of Father Knows Best than a real military unit. Even the level of interpersonal conflict found in Sands of Iwo Jima would have vastly improved this film.
As it is, Guadalcanal Diary seems to be assembled out of spare parts from other, better war movies. The characters are broadly-drawn archetypes straight out of Central Casting. You’ve got “Taxi,” the New Yorker (William Bendix), “Soose,” the Latino (Anthony Quinn), “Chicken,” the kid (Richard Jaeckel) and a host of recognizable types, but little in the way of deeply drawn characters.
The combat action, while realistic in board strokes, is not only inaccurate in most of its details, but also hopelessly sanitized. Not surprisingly for a film made during the war, this is an unvarnished propaganda piece, extolling the virtues of teamwork and whitewashing issues that do not serve the cause. This, by itself, does not make Guadalcanal Diary a bad film, because there were many above-average war movies made during the conflict with similar intentions. Unfortunately, little effort has going into making this one any more than a Hallmark card to wartime patriotism.
It’s too bad, because the Guadalcanal campaign has been rather neglected by Hollywood, with this and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line being the main exceptions. I think, along with Thirty Seconds over Tokyo, Tregaski’s book could really stand a truly modern re-adaptation.