'With the Marines at Tarawa' Presents War Coverage Worth Fighting For

A celebration of the 1945 Oscar winner for Best Documentary (Short Subject).

Marines at Tarawa

Nonfics is now a newsletter! Please support documentary criticism by subscribing here: nonfics.substack.com.

This post was originally published on the Documentary Channel Blog on February 13, 2013. 

Last week’s dip into the Documentary Channel vault focused on 1943 Oscar winner The Battle of Midway. This week, I’m continuing the celebration of Academy Awards month with another winner, With the Marines at Tarawa. It too is a government-sponsored World War II film, though it’s not quite the propaganda piece that Midway is. This is a more linear, newsier telling of a Pacific battle with simpler, more matter-of-fact rhetoric.

The 18-minute Technicolor film (with some black and white footage) was produced by the U.S. Marine Corps and directed by actor Louis Hayward, who was enlisted in the division and assigned to its photo unit, earning a Bronze Star for his service. His team filmed the battle (about a third of the material is now credited to Norman T. Hatch), which took place November 20-23, 1943, and the images they came back with were some of the most controversial yet also some of the most powerful released to a public audience. While Midway has its memorable record of concussive explosions, Tarawa is best known for its footage of dead American soldiers, including many floating to and fro along the shore. Such disturbing shots had to be approved by President Roosevelt for release.

And Roosevelt agreed to their inclusion in the film after being convinced by his journalist friend Robert Sherrod of Time-Life, who said the American people weren’t aware enough of the reality of the Pacific campaign. Of course, just like Midway, one of the possible criticisms we could have with Tarawa is that it’s not very informative about the campaign nor the significance of this particular battle. Still, the film opened in public cinemas, via Warner Bros., on March 4, 1944, and was a huge success. It influenced an increase in war bond sales and just over a year following its release it won the Oscar for Best Documentary (Short Subject). However, Marine Corps recruitment also reportedly decreased immensely as a result.*

What Hayward’s film doesn’t show, unlike Midway, is the danger to the combat photographers themselves. Many of the shots in Tarawa have a feeling of being a bit distanced from the action, and there isn’t the same sort of shakiness and camera glitches we see in the earlier Oscar winner. But the perceptive viewer should get that the battle was all around these filmmakers. What needs to be known outside of what’s in the film is that two of fifteen photographers on site were killed and another was injured.

A UPI story on Hatch from 2005 explains the role of the enlisted journalists at a battle such as Tarawa and in a war where the concept and experience was totally new, to the photographers and their fellow Marines. They were often in the line of fire and were expected to take up arms over camera if they found themselves in front of the enemy. Yet the concentration on filming that these men had is described as seeming to put them in “another world,” so it doesn’t sound like it would be too easy to take sudden action as a soldier. That’s obviously very different than the embedded war photographers of today, though Hatch stresses in the article the continued importance of such coverage of the wars of today, maintaining the public’s right to know.

From the Battle of Tarawa, Hatch and the other surviving crew brought back with them 900 still shots and about 5,000 feet of color movies (Photochron), according to a December 1943 article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Much of this material was for internal use, for study by the Pentagon, but once the documentary film was given the green-light it also became a part of public history. Hayward was given the unfortunate task of putting it together. He was there so he knew how it should go, but the task also made him relive the battle over and over, which was very obviously very hard on him and is said to have caused the breakup of his marriage to Ida Lupino.**

What’s curious is the narration, which is now credited to enlisted actor William Lundigan, who served in the Pacific but not at Tarawa. Watching the film, there’s a sort of disconnect at times, where the exposition seems like it could be factual yet not necessarily tied to the image it’s spoken over. The shot that made me first think of the possibility is of the bombed Red Cross truck said to have been used for weapon transport by the Japanese. We’re told this more than shown it to be the case, and I’m reminded of the bombed hospital with the red cross imagery in Midway. Of course, since Tarawa is directed by someone who was at Tarawa, there’s little reason to doubt the validity of the voiceover.

That’s part of why this film isn’t so much propaganda as Midway, which has a very clearly scripted voiceover and structure. Tarawa is, to be sure, something that was used for a similar purpose (as noted, it helped sell bonds in addition to being information for the public), but we can consider it more on the level of journalistic and historic documentary than propaganda.

*According to the book Utmost Savagery: The Three Days of Tarawa by Joseph H. Alexander.

** See the book Stars in the Corps: Movie Actors in the United States Marines by James E. Wise, Jr., and Anne C. Rehill.

This interview is reprinted with the permission of Participant Channel, Inc. © Participant Channel, Inc. 2014.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.