Saturday, May 28, 2011

Tonight's Movie: Destination Gobi (1953)

Tonight I've enjoyed a double bill of Richard Widmark WWII films, with THE FROGMEN (1951) followed by DESTINATION GOBI, which was released two years later.

DESTINATION GOBI is a Technicolor film directed by master craftsman Robert Wise. (Two weeks ago I watched a far different Wise movie, the 1951 film noir THE HOUSE ON TELEGRAPH HILL.) In DESTINATION GOBI Widmark plays Chief Petty Officer Samuel T. McHale, a longtime Navy man who improbably finds himself "babysitting" a small crew of Navy weathermen stationed in the Gobi Desert. The team is responsible for helping to forecast weather in the Pacific Theatre.

When Japanese airplanes destroy the weather station, taking out the radio system and killing the crew's commanding officer (Russell Collins), CPO McHale takes charge. McHale decides his men have the best chance of survival if they abandon the station and attempt to reach the sea, several hundred miles across the Gobi Desert.

The Navy men are aided by a Mongolian tribe led by the mercurial Kengtu (Murvyn Vye). Kengtu isn't completely trustworthy, yet he and the "1st Mongolian Calvary" always seem to turn up when the Americans really need help.

The film is said to be based on a true story, and the script blends sarcastic humor, poignancy, and flashes of action to create an absorbing, completely unique WWII saga. It's a fairly rare thing to see sailors attempting to evade the Japanese army while riding camels across the desert!

Widmark is always highly watchable, and as the frustrated Navy man longing to return to the sea, he's as interesting as ever. The actors playing his ragtag crew of weathermen include Don Taylor, Casey Adams (Max Showalter), Martin Milner, and Darryl Hickman, all of whom do a good job differentiating their characters. Ross Bagdasarian is properly annoying as the most negative member of the crew.

Murvyn Vye, who plays Kengtu, created the role of Jigger, the villain, in the original 1945 Broadway production of CAROUSEL; he's believable as the Mongolian tribal leader. Leonard Strong plays a key role as another Mongol tribesman.

Alvy Moore (SUSAN SLEPT HERE) has one scene during an amusing sequence in which the Navy brass in Washington try to figure out why their weather crew has requisitioned 60 saddles.

The Technicolor cinematography was by Charles G. Clarke. He and Wise created some very striking shots, with Nevada standing in for the Gobi Desert; one of my favorite scenes was when the men pass their "Skipper's" burial place as they leave camp, with a backdrop of beautiful cloud-filled skies.

The serviceable score was composed by Sol Kaplan. The movie runs 90 minutes.

DESTINATION GOBI is not available on DVD or VHS in the U.S. It's been released on a Region 2 DVD from Spain, and it can also be seen via Amazon's Instant Video pay service.

This movie is also shown occasionally on Fox Movie Channel. It will next air on FMC on June 6, 2011.

A trailer can be seen at IMDb.

2012 Update: DESTINATION GOBI is now available on DVD-R via the Fox Cinema Archives.


Blogger Kevin Deany said...

I met Robert Wise once and told him how much I like this film. He ssid, "You'd be surprised at the number of people who tell me that."

It's a really interesting film. There aren't a lot of war movies dealing with weathermen. And there aren't a lot of war movies set in Mongolia. Combine the two and you have a most unique adventure film.

The Sol Kaplan score was recently issued on the Intrada label and I was happy to grab it.

1:46 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

What a great story! Thanks so much for sharing it, Kevin. I'm glad to know others appreciate the film. I was completely unfamiliar with this title until I recently recorded it, and I appreciated learning about some relatively unheralded and unique contributions to our efforts in WWII.

From what I've read, Wise was quite a nice man. He's always been special to me as THE SOUND OF MUSIC had such an impact on me growing up, in many ways.

Best wishes,

1:50 PM  

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