AMBUSH BAY (1966)
DIRECTOR: Ron Winston
Jim Mitchum, Hugh O’Brian, Mickey Rooney, Tisa Chang, Peter Masterson, Harry Lauter, Bruno Punzulan and Clem Stadler.
“Ambush Bay” is the poster-child of how to make a World War II film based solely on clichés. This said, the result is a very entertaining but always paper-thin look at espionage in the Pacific Theater.
Four days before General MacArthur’s invasion fleet is slated to return to the Philippines, a squad of Marines is dropped on Mindanao with a risky assignment: penetrate enemy-held territory and contact a spy named Miyazaki who operates out of a heavily-guarded Japanese rest camp. They spy has information vital to MacArthur’s intelligence department. The Marines are all experts in the field of killing, except for Pfc. Grenier (Jim Mitchum, “Leathernecks”), a PBY radio man who was assigned to the team at the last minute when the original radio operator got sick. Grenier doesn’t hit it off with the veterans, especially the macho Sgt. Corey (Hugh O’Brian, “In Harm’s Way”) who winds up in charge of the mission when the Captain (Clem Stadler) becomes a casualty.
The piece is cliché-ridden from start to finish – in what movie have we not seen the characters, setting or mission before? Ron Winston handles every bit of this nonsense seriously – so seriously, in fact, that despite the flaws, it’s very easy to enjoy this movie, even in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way. O’Brian gives a passionate performance, even if his character is anything but original and personal. His Sergeant is virtually a superhero, as Sgt. Wartell (Mickey Rooney!) reveals to Grenier by describing a series of Corey’s early battle exploits on Guadalcanal and Tarawa. Rooney looks to be thoroughly enjoying himself as he scales cliffs and mows down Japanese infantry by the dozen, although he looks way too old and simultaneously boyish to be a believable career marine.
Although he gets third billing, Mitchum’s is the most developed and believable character. He’s a person any viewer can relate to: thrown into a situation beyond his control, Grenier is forced to adapt to ever-changing conditions – and fast – because his life may depend on it. He wants to do his job well, but doesn’t have any natural talent, and therefore his peers look down on him with utter contempt. His performance never strikes a false note, and he even gets to lapse into some voice-overs to keep things fresh.
The on-location photography is stunning from beginning to end. Had this film not been shot in the Philippines, any credibility would have been totally lost. The exteriors are appropriately lush and beautiful. Winston and cinematographer Emmanuel L. Rojas don’t just take us into the steamy jungles; we get to venture into rice patties, across streams and down rushing, crystal clear blue rivers. I absolutely hate it when producers try to make ridiculous locations like North American forests (“The Green Berets”) or rocky plains of Spain (“The Thin Red Line”) pass for Asian or South Pacific jungles. The technique just doesn’t work. Kudos to Winston for choosing to shoot this film in the actual locations it is said to have occurred at.
Although the movie runs nearly 2 hours, the time flies by. The pace is kept fluid in two ways. The characters are constantly on the go. The only reason they stop is rest, and we’re treated to discussion revealing something of their character. For example, we don’t get to know Corey as a person until late in the film when he develops a relationship with Tisa Chang’s character. When the men aren’t hiking or resting, they’re engaged in some sort of combat with the enemy – patrols, tanks and indigenous cannibals constantly hamper their progress. Winston doesn’t dwell on the supporting cast at all: most of them are non-essential characters that he kills off in a few early encounters with the enemy. We constantly ask ourselves “Who is going to get killed next?” This curiosity keeps us engaged right up until the climactic battle inside a fortified Japanese radio installation.
All of that said, it’s necessary to point out several technical flaws which make the proceedings difficult to take seriously. The members of the squad are introduced as crack masters in the art of warfare, but by the half-way point, almost all of them have been killed by your average Japanese draftee - and usually for stupid reasons. The special effects are very below par, even for a low-budget film from 1966. One encounter with a Japanese tank is packed with some most ridiculous elements – including two of the least believable explosions ever caught on film. (It’s also impossible to overlook the fact that later on in the film, Corey, Grenier and Miyazaki take a breather at the exact same outdoor location that the Marines were engaged in a firefight near the beginning of the movie). The rubbery, funky camouflage uniforms and ridiculous baseball-style caps look like something a Green Beret or Navy SEAL might have worn in the 1960s, but are totally out of place in a World War II movie. Wartell’s encounter with a Japanese patrol involving “Baked potatoes” has got to be one of the corniest “stupid typical bad guy” scenes ever. And, finally, when the movie reaches its climax – first of all, how lucky can our heroes get? The way they manage to break into the Japanese fortress is unbelievable, and the amount of bullets Corey takes while blasting at hordes of enemy troops with a machine gun is ludicrous.
Perhaps it’s the unbelievable, overstated corny parts of “Ambush Bay” that make it such an entertaining film; or maybe it’s more serious, sincere performances of Mitchum and O’Brian that make it stand out from the deluge of “jungle patrol” stories out there. Whatever the reason, it’s thoroughly enjoyable has been a perennial favorite of mine since the days of the now-forgotten TNT Memorial Day Marathons. Now that it’s available on DVD, a whole new audience may have opened up.
SGT. SLAUGHTER'S RATING:
ON DVD HERE