|Directed by||John F. "Jack" Kennedy|
|Produced by||Herb Wilson|
|Written by||Alan Flynn and Jack Kennedy|
|Based on||The Friendly Isles by Calvin Coolidge, 1928|
|Narrated by||James Hadley|
|Starring||James Hadley; Jack Germaine;|
Billy Scopes; Gregory Peck
|Running time||214 minutes|
|Language||English, some Japanese|
Oahu is a 1962 feature film directed by Jack Kennedy and released and distributed by United Pictures. Within a month of its release, it had broken the previous record for highest-grossing film of all time and held the record for sixteen years until the release of 1978's Star Wars. Oahu was nominated for ten Academy Awards and won eight of them, including Best Picture, Best Director (Kennedy), and Best Screenplay.
The film was somewhat controversial in its time for the graphic depiction of warfare - allegedly, some states refused to allow the film to be screened within its borders, numerous edits were made by some censors to cut out the most offending bits and one critic went so far as to call the film "un-American" and to equate Kennedy to Emperor Sebastien of France. For the most part, however, the film was critically lauded and is widely regarded as the best film of the 1960's, one of the best war movies ever made, and one of the best American films ever made. Despite his late-career struggles, the film cemented Kennedy as one of the premier directors and film pioneers of his time. As one critic said, "Jack Kennedy could retire today and still have accomplished with one film what most directors would never accomplish with ten." Film Magazine ranked the movie as the #3 Best Movie of the 20th Century in its review of the 20th century's films in 2001.
The film opens on a beach littered in corpses with no opening credits, merely a voiceover by Flick (James Hadley), who is reciting a Biblical passage as the waves crash. Eventually, the waves drown out the sound of his voice and camera goes under the waves, only to emerge over them as a series of Navy ships plow through the ocean with the year, 1926, superimposed at the bottom of the screen.
The six protagonists are introduced. Benjamin "Flick" Doyle is a young sergeant from Montana whose father is a rancher and Alaskan War veteran. Hank (Billy Scopes) and Jim (Louie Cannon) Johnson are a pair of car racers from Kansas, whose dialogue is often peppered with automotive terms and metaphors. Tom "Skipper" Jones (Jack Germaine) is the leader of the platoon, a no-nonsense lieutenant from New Jersey. John Allan (Peter McMurphy) is a sensitive, deeply religious prohibitionist from Georgia. Eddie Keefer (Ramone Beasly) is a member of a black platoon on the same boat, the USS James Nansett.
Flick's voiceover explains that the units originally were organized by state, but following the devastating California campaign, the American platoons had to be reorganized differently in preparation for the assault on Hawai'i. As the ships barrel on towards the Japanese-held islands, we see flashbacks by every character to their life before the war.
Skipper is the only man on the boat who has actually seen combat before - the rest of the young men under his watch are all new recruits who left basic training just after the Japanese were defeated in California. As the Nansett continues to approach the Hawaiian islands, Skipper describes in morbid detail the barbaric practices of the Japanese soldiers.
A day out from the island of Oahu, the American convoy encounters Japanese patrol boats and a firefight begins. The Nansett suffers considerable damage and begins to sink. Several men are left adrift in the Pacific as Japanese sharpshooters on the patrol boats pick them off one by one. The protagonists narrowly survive the onslaught and are picked up by the USS Josiah Marks out of the water once the Japanese boats are all sunk.
As he dreams aboard the new ship, Flick thinks about the open mountains of Montana and a river near his ranch - but when he approaches the river, it is filled with blood.
The Marks nears Oahu's beaches and the men are told they are to stage a beachhead landing. Due to water damage suffered to many of the rifles in the patrol boat attack, only half of the men are given rifles, and the rest are told to "keep your heads down and pick up anything a dead comrade drops."
The platoon disembarks onto the eastern beach of Oahu and come under fire by the Japanese. In a violent, vivid sequence, the Americans are gunned down in swarms but eventually manage to take out a Japanese machine gun nest with dynamite and secure the beachhead. With his entire platoon slaughtered, Eddie joins up with the survivors of the all-white platoon. Skipper and John are both reluctant, but the other three survivors are all for it.
The six men embark into the Oahu jungle to meet up with some form of central command. They eventually encounter a well-equipped platoon led by Lt. Peter Booth (Gregory Peck) and Staff Sergeant Cliff Urquhart (John Watson) that landed further down the beach, and as night falls they prepare for an inevitable Japanese assault.
As the attack comes, the Americans are nearly overwhelmed. Hank is killed by a grenade and John is shot in the leg and wounded. The Japanese eventually retreat after a long, tiring battle in nearly full darkness.
Day breaks and the Japanese attack again at dawn, this time with dynamite and poison gas. The Americans are pushed back to the beach and massacred in droves by machine gun and explosives, and John is trampled by his comrades on accident and drowned. Eddie dies as well, diving on a grenade to save a group of medics nearby.
Reinforcements arrive as the Americans hunker down in a sheltered grove further down the beach. With reinforcements, including a Major, George Oliver Pencott (Grant Keruaoc in a cameo role), the Americans push into the jungle with flamethrowers and dynamite. Flick and Jim consider how pristine the island is without humans on it, and wonder what it would be like had the war never started in the first place.
The Americans find a weakness in the Japanese defensive positions and, in another spectacular and violent battle, manage to take a hill overlooking the harbor of Honolulu. Pencott announces that they are to siege Honolulu in three days time, once further reinforcements and sea support arrive.
During the three days, the survivors (Flick, Jim and Skipper) consider their lives and the necessity of the war. While out on a scouting mission, Flick and Jim accidentally kill a native Hawai'ian they believe to be a Japanese scout. Soon thereafter, a group of frightened natives approach and, through gestures, respectfully ask to take the body back to their village. Flick suggests they follow the natives, but Jim fears it may be a trap.
The day of the assault on Honolulu arrives and, in a forty-five minute scene, the Americans launch their attack against the city. The fighting is brutal and involves sea bombardment, close-quarters combat and even an aerial assault by Japanese planes stationed at nearby Pearl Harbor. Hundreds of lives are lost, including Jim, Urquhart and even Pencott, and the Americans eventually retreat to the outskirts of the city, battered and licking their wounds until the next day.
During the retreat, Flick is shot in the leg and Skipper tries to save him. They are both taken captive by the Japanese and moved out of the city to a putrid, disgusting prison camp where they starve and are routinely beaten. They can often hear air raid sirens and the sounds of battle nearby during the day and night, but several weeks pass without any word on the status of the Americans.
Eventually, a Japanese commander of a high-ranking samurai order corners Skipper to interrogate him on American codes in an iconic scene. Skipper is tortured and beaten until he finally talks, giving the Japanese commander a fake code that proves worthless. Skipper is left in the interrogation room by himself and the commander returns and drags him into the courtyard of the camp after his deceit is detected and beheads Skipper in front of all the other prisoners. Skipper screams "God bless America!" before he dies and the entire prison camp suddenly breaks out into singing patriotic anthems. Several prisoners are shot.
Eventually, the Americans seize the camp and release the prisoners after several weeks. Flick and Booth are reunited on a plane bound for the United States, as they have suffered serious wounds and are no longer fit for battle. Flick ends the film with a voiceover deliberating the cost of war as the film closes on a shot of the beach from the opening, littered with corpses, and cuts suddenly mid-sentence to reveal the title against a black screen.
As early as 1956, Jack Kennedy had been interested in directing a film. However, numerous projects in the late 1950's, including the opportunity to appear in legendary director Steven Priest's Cold War thriller Modern Empires (which was delayed by a year due to the sensitivity of the Black Sea War), distracted him.
His friend, Alan Flynn, approached Kennedy on the set of Modern Empires in 1958 with a project he had been working on for a few years - a war movie set during the Pacific War, an adaptation of the Calvin Coolidge novel "The Friendly Isles." Kennedy, who was not a particular fan of Coolidge, thought that a novel as "graphic and obscene as that would never make it in Hollywood." However, after reading the script, he told Flynn that with some tweaking, the script could be a hit.
Kennedy and Flynn spent a great deal of time in 1959 and 1960 working on their script, which they finally finished in the summer of 1960. The new film, titled Oahu, moved the plot of "The Friendly Isles" from the Samoas to Hawai'i, and instead of being a bitter trepidation of the darkness of the human soul set during a war at sea, it would be an epic war film that would incorporate Coolidge's style with realism.
United Pictures executive Herb Wilson immediately greenlit the project upon reading Kennedy and Flynn's final script, believing that in context of the ongoing Bomb Scare, it was exactly the kind of film that would turn Americans away from war and the hawkish state of mind that seemed to be permeating the country. Kennedy would begin shooting on Cuba and then Hawai'i in early 1961.
The filming of Oahu is notorious as one of the worst shoots in the history of film. From the get-go, United Pictures and Kennedy were clashing over the shoot. Kennedy had intentionally decided to not use any well-known actors, much against the wishes of the studio, and had instead recruited a ragtag group of lesser known stars. While he eventually caved and gave Gregory Peck a major role and gave good friend Grant Keruoac a part, he cast most of the main characters from TV shows, theaters or even at random. Ramone Beasly was a jazz musician in a Los Angeles nightclub that Kennedy just happened to be at one night in 1960 and was offered a lead role as a result. Most of the extras in the movie were cast a day or two before shooting - most of the actors in the major battle scenes were everyday folk from Cuba or Peninsula who Kennedy or casting director Ian Beverly personally approached on the street with an offer of two hundred dollars per day.
The cost of production skyrocketed over the course of a few months, and United at one point threatened Kennedy with shutting the project down. Oahu cost the equivalent of 195 million dollars when adjusted for inflation and actors complained about Kennedy's dictatorial methods on screen, forbidding his actors from divulging the plot and denying most actors full copies of the script, only giving them the scenes they were included in - which even frustrated Keruoac, who explained in an interview in 1969 that Kennedy was "the best director I've ever worked with, and the lousiest people-person I've ever had as a director."
Filming concluded after nine long, tiring months in September of 1961. Lead actor Jack Germaine famously announced that he would never, under any circumstances, ever work with or for Kennedy again. Louie Cannon compained about how he had developed a nervous condition while shooting the film, and Peter McMurphy never appeared in another film again, choosing instead to continue his career in television.
Reception and Legacy
Oahu was first released in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago in late April 1962, and was received extremely well by most critics. While a small cluster of critics were appalled at the graphic nature of the violence, the premiere was an overwhelming success. President John Hoover was in attendance at the screening in New York and referred to the film as a "reminder for why America must always remain vigilant, so that this never happens again."
Many critics appreciated the film as a cautionary tale. Esteemed film critic George Boisen remarked, "Kennedy does not so much tell as show why humankind should avoid violence at all costs. Oahu is not a campy, comraderie war film, and it is patriotic only in the sense that the Americans are the heroes. The ending is as dark as its beginning and middle. Sensitive audiences will be unable to watch, but the stronger-willed viewer will be treated to as damning a condemnation of warfare as has ever been presented."
In Los Angeles and New York, Oahu was screened multiple times per day, and within a month the film had broken the box office record previously set in 1945 by The Great Pioneers. Despite a ban against the film in Alabama and Kentucky, where it was seen as too graphic for audiences to watch, and heavy censorship by the censorship boards in ten states where much of the gore was excluded, including the graphic beheading of Skipper in the film's final act, the film was a runaway success. Word of mouth did as much to encourage audience attendance - the film was billed as a once-in-a-generation spectacle. Oahu was nominated for ten Academy Awards that year and won eight of them, including Best Picture and Best Director.
The film also launched the careers of many of its actors, especially previously unknown James Hadley, who became one of the great leading men of the 1960's. Hadley was referred to as "the next Jack Kennedy, courtesy of the first original Jack Kennedy," due to both sharing Irish Catholic roots in New England and being attractive, charismatic leading men. Hadley appeared in the first ever "summer blockbuster" with his starring role in 1969's Snake and would go on to play James Bond from 1972 to 1980.
Jack Germaine, the popular television actor who played Skipper, was also elevated to cult status due to his iconic performance, although he failed to win an Academy Award for the role. Germaine appeared in a number of Western movies and war films, but retired from acting in 1970 due to his fears of being typecast in "dashing hero roles". Germaine would return in triumphant roles as an obsessive mercenary in 1974's Thieves and a no-nonsense narcotics officer in 1975's Showdown Los Angeles and went on to be one of the more respected actors in Hollywood through the 70's and 80's in a variety of dramatic, comedic and action roles.
For Kennedy, Oahu was something of a one-hit wonder. His next directorial project, The American Congress, was received with mixed reviews and seen as a heavy-handed and extended campaign advertisement for his brother Joseph, who at the time was running for President. The late 1960's were a difficult time for Kennedy, who struggled with alcoholism and directed a few minor movies and appeared in a few minor roles. He emerged in a career renaissance with several comedic roles in the early 1970's and directed the hugely successful An Average Citizen in 1973, and appeared in Old Country in 1975 to take home a Best Actor Award, and became a proponent of independent filmmaking in the 1980's, founding the Kennedy Film Festival.
Oahu is held as an industry standard for war films and taking major gambles. The 1960's saw a major slowdown of war films because, in the words of director James Pohler, "you can't top Oahu." However, the film also encouraged a major discussion in Hollywood about what is too violent to show on screen; remembering the hassle and expense caused by mass censorship in several states, studios began self-censoring unusually violent films. The 1965 gangster movie Bogart was the worst offendor - almost thirty minutes of footage were slashed out of the crime epic, not making it back into the movie until the director's cut was re-released in 1981.
The film is considered culturally significant for its introduction of many famous quotes, including the oft-referenced "Still wanna play soldiers, boys?" and "Looks like hell to me." The torture scene of Skipper was named the #6 most iconic scenes in American movie history, and the initial beach landing is ranked #14. Oahu topped the list for numerous "Best Of..." categories and was discussed as one of the best movies ever made for decades to come. The film was the inspiration for French filmmaker Gerard Alfon's Le Guerre (1969) and for numerous American war movies in the 1980's and 1990's. The 1986 American war film The Jungle features characters loosely modelled after the archetypes of the heroes of Oahu, and the hero of 2005's Burrard was said to be "a wide-eyed kid in the thick of war, a Kennedyesque hero like Flick."
- Pvt. Benjamin "Flick" Doyle - James Hadley
- Lt. Thomas "Skipper" Jones - Jack Germaine
- Pvt. Hank Johnson - Billy Scopes
- Lt. Peter Booth - Gregory Peck
- Pvt. Eddie Keefer - Ramone Beasly
- Pvt. John Allan - Peter McMurphy
- Pvt. Jim Johnson - Louie Cannon
- Staff Sgt. Cliff Urquhart - John Watson
- Mjr. George. O. Pencott - Grant Kerouac