Celebrating Robert Mitchum’s Centennial: Mitch Goes to War

We’ve been celebrating one hundred years of Robert Mitchum, having already looked back at his noir and Western films. Another genre he dominated was war movies, often projecting the great inner strength of tight-lipped heroes who fought the good fight, usually against staggering odds. Here are several of the best:

Gung Ho! (1943)

This granddaddy of all war films opens with a commanding officer (played by Randolph Scott) whipping a group of hardened warriors into shape, knowing certain death may be the fate of many. Mitchum is “Pig-Iron” Matthews, a former boxer who answers the call to be part of the elite force. The first third of the film taps into their harsh training conditions, followed by the legendary 1942 Makin Island raid—still action-packed by today’s standards.

Modern ears might have a hard time with racist lines like, “Why do you want to kill Japs?” (One answer: “I just don’t like Japs.”) It’s also unfortunate to see Filipino and Chinese actors noticeably playing the part of the Japanese soldiers.

In an indelible scene, Mitch’s character has been wounded in the throat, and noticing their surgeon is about to be killed, he expertly lobs a knife into the enemy soldier’s back. “Pig-Iron” was a small role for Mitchum—though he would be elevated to top billing years later after becoming a Hollywood heavyweight when the film was re-released—but it led to bigger parts in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944) and The Story of GI-Joe (1945), which earned him an academy award nomination.

Trivia: The Chinese expression “gung ho,” translated as “work together,” entered the American vernacular after this movie and now refers to anyone who is overly enthusiastic, especially in going to war.

Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison (1957)

It’s 1944 in the South Pacific, and U.S. Marine Corporal Allison (Robert Mitchum) is adrift at sea in a rubber raft. He lands on an island populated solely by Sister Angela (Deborah Kerr). Before long, the Japanese establish a presence and force Allison and the nun to hide in a cave.

In need of supplies, Allison sneaks into the Japanese camp and loads up on goods, only to have to hide when two soldiers working the graveyard shift break out Go and begin playing the typically long, drawn-out strategy game. Allison manages to get away unseen, but there are additional challenges ahead. Sister Angela, who hasn’t taken her final vows, finds it difficult to resist Allison, who has fallen in love, asking her to choose between him or God. Decisions, decisions.

Kerr and Mitch made many superb films together, but this one is my personal favorite, specifically for the cat-and-mouse game with the Japanese army and the exotic location, which in fact is Trinidad and Tobago.

Trivia: A talented vocalist who had already charted with the modest pop hit “The Ballad of Thunder Road,” Mitch became enamored with Calypso music while filming Mr. Allison. He recorded the 1957 record, Calypso–Is Like So, crooning tunes like “Coconut Water” and “I Learn a Merengue, Mama.” Greg Adams for AllMusic wrote, “Unlike most celebrity vocalists, Robert Mitchum actually had musical talent.” [Source: Wikipedia, AllMusic]

The Longest Day (1962)

John Wayne gets top billing in this classic, historical account of WWII’s D-Day, but it’s Robert Mitchum who comes across as the star. The Duke plays Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin H. Vandervoort, a paratrooper with a broken leg who is pulled along while barking orders, sounding just like a caricature of Wayne. But Mitchum’s part as Brigadier General Norman Cota, Assistant Commander of the 29th Infantry Division, delivers a powerful moment. Watching as his men are being cut down on the Normandy beach, he whips them into action by saying: “There are only two kinds of people who are staying on this beach: those who are already dead and those that are gonna die. Now get off your butts, you’re the fightin’ 29th.”

Allegedly, President Eisenhower, who is also depicted in the film, walked out of the showing, angered over errors in the plot. But the film is still a spectacle that holds your attention for three hours and features a celebrity “who’s who” of the day, including Robert Ryan, Sean Connery, Richard Burton, Henry Fonda, and a host of others.

Trivia: Mitchum weathered some bad publicity when it was reported he was disgusted that the extras, who were real-life soldiers, didn’t want to jump into the water because it was too cold. He jumped first and they followed, but the headlines next day had Mitch complaining they were cowards. He quickly walked it back.

The Winds of War (1983)

Back when television’s big three networks routinely had their yearly multi-night miniseries (Roots, The Thorn Birds, Shogun), The Winds of War was a smash hit in the Nielsen ratings. And who else but Mitchum could step into larger-than-life Victor “Pug” Henry’s shoes?

Based on the book by Herman Wouk (The Caine Mutiny), Winds covers the lives of two families before the start of WWII until the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. Interspersed throughout the 15-hour, soap-opera-driven plot is voiceover narration to keep straight the various leaders, soldiers, and politicians. Wouk, according to Wikipedia, was originally apprehensive about an adaptation of his novel, but the success of Winds and ensuing critical acclaim led to a sequel: War and Remembrance (1988), also based on the author’s work.

Pug (Mitchum, then 66), married to Rhoda (Polly Bergen), begins an affair with 28-year-old Pamela Tudsbury (Victoria Tennant), while his son Byron Henry (Jan-Michael Vincent) romances Natalie Jastrow (Ali MacGraw). The acting is all over the board, but the entire production is grounded by Mitch’s credible performance.

Trivia: Mitchum was accused of anti-Semitism after an interview with Esquire was published. He explained that he had been in character reciting views of the part he played in The Winning Season (1982) and that he was “truly sorry that this misunderstanding has upset so many people, especially since it is so foreign to my principle. The attendant misfortune is that it has brought me a spate of mail from people and organizations who are encouraged to believe that I share their bigotry and discrimination.” [source: imdb]

See also: Celebrating Robert Mitchum's Centennial: The Noir


David Cranmer is the publisher and editor of BEAT to a PULP. Latest books from this indie powerhouse include the alternate history novella Leviathan and sci-fi adventure Pale Mars. David lives in New York with his wife and daughter.

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