Story of Dr. Wassell The (1944) – full review!
Produced and directed by Cecil B. DeMille this slightly above average biographical drama features Gary Cooper in the title role as the Navy doctor that saved the lives of nearly a dozen wounded United States sailors from the Japanese invasion of Java during World War II. Crewmen from the USS Marblehead that could not walk to board the evacuation ships under their own power were left on the island in Dr. Corydon Wassell’s care; but as the Naval officer in charge his persistence and determination eventually led to them being successfully evacuated to Australia. The true story of the heroic effort was read over the radio by President Franklin D. Roosevelt inspiring DeMille and the story by James Hilton (Mrs. Miniver (1942)) with Commander Wassell which was adapted for the screen by Charles Bennett (Foreign Correspondent (1940)) and Alan Le May. The film’s Special Effects were nominated for an Academy Award.
Wassell (Cooper) had been a country doctor in rural Arkansas. According to the film he was paid for his services with pigs (e.g. razorbacks) from the community’s residents and about the time he’d seen a flyer soliciting help in China that featured a beautiful woman’s picture his livestock escapes so that he’d decided to travel there. Hence like a lot of movies which tell of historical events this one features a back-story Cooper’s between Cooper’s title character and Laraine Day as Madeleine the woman whose picture Wassell had seen in the newsletter. Wassell was looking for the plague-like cause of many deaths in China by investigating snails in the Yangtze River. He was assisted by a local doctor he called Ping (Philip Ahn) but about the time they’d discovered the culprit “worm” another had also. Since Wassell has been competing for Madeleine’s affections with this other researcher he decided her love for him would be pity based and essentially left her (ostensibly so that she could become the other man’s wife). This subplot is told in flashback during the breaks in the action of this hero’s story.
Each of the actors that play the men who were ultimately rescued provide color and represent easily identifiable stereotypes for the audience: Dennis O’Keefe plays ‘Hoppy’ Hopkins also from Arkansas who is inspired to live on by the love of a native nurse named “three martini” (Carol Thurston) whose blood was shared with his during a transfusion; Johnny (Renny McEvoy) is a lady’s man who gets left behind because he’s having too much fun with the local ladies; Andy (Elliot Reid a young C. Thomas Howell look-alike) falls for one of the Dutch nurses named Bettina (Signe Hasso) though he learns that she’s practically engaged to a lieutenant (Carl Esmond); Paul Kelly plays Murdock a shell shocked veteran and Stanley Ridges plays the men’s original now wheelchair-bound Commander Bill Goggins. Some will recognize Irving Bacon Yvonne De Carlo Si Jenks and George Macready among the other uncredited actors in the cast. Throughout the adventure Dr. Wassell does everything he can including stretching some rules and nearly defying orders to save the men such that he thinks he’s being called on the carpet when he’s really just earned the Navy Cross.