Don't worry. You won't regret clicking on the link to read the review of East LA Marine. While the title sounds like a good name for some stupid, low-budget action film starring Dolph Lundgren, East LA Marine: The Untold True Story of Guy Gabaldon is actually a captivating documentary about a real life, World War II veteran who fought in the Pacific. His fame was earned because of the amount of Japanese soldiers that he singlehandedly captured, each one a remarkable achievement.
The documentary takes standard form; it begins towards the end of its story and tells you some of the main facts about Gabaldon. The narration, constant throughout the film, is by Freddie Prinze Jr., which is good in a lot of ways, giving mainstream Hollywood legitimacy to this small documentary (which you can't even find on IMDB) and also showing that young superstars like Prinze respect the veterans that they portray in films. Prinze walks us through Gabaldon's life; soon we are back in his childhood in Los Angeles. We learn about how he joined the armed forces, and then we hear about his exploits on the Pacific island of Saipan, the place where he made his name.
East LA Marine consists of original footage orchestrated by director Steven Jay Ruben, old WWII documentary footage, clips from old Hollywood movies, and some TV show footage from the 50's. There are also plenty of old photographs because this film reaches back to time periods before motion picture cameras were common. It is a well-put-together little film, apparently made without too much of a budget, but the filmmakers got everything right. It never drags on or veers off course; the film focuses on what sort of a person the fiery Gabaldon is and what he accomplished as a Marine.
There are a lot of eye opening moments in the film. Gabaldon is an ancestor of Spanish conquistadors, and his Hispanic heritage may have been part of the reason more people don't know his name. After arriving on Saipan in 1944, he quickly learned that life was going to be a case of kill or be killed, but he was soon sneaking away from his comrades to try to convince the fatalistic Japanese soldiers hiding in the island's caves to surrender. Some of his childhood friends and neighbors were Japanese American, and he learned enough broken Japanese from them to be the most effective negotiator on Saipan. Sometimes threatening them, sometimes appeasing them, he singlehandedly captured more than a thousand of the enemy, including 800 at once near Saipan's bonsai cliffs.
As unbelievable as this sounds, you can still be convinced by seeing Gabaldon today. In his on-screen interviews, you can still see the fire in his eyes, though no doubt it would've been even more vibrant back then. Many of his comrades in arms and childhood friends are also interviewed on camera, as are some military historians.
I love films like this, and I believe that our World War II vets need all the exposure they can get. Gabaldon actually had a major motion picture made about him in 1960, Hell to Eternity, directed by Phil Karlson. However, he was portrayed by the taller and not Hispanic Jeffrey Hunter (The Searchers), who did not play a Hispanic American in the film. Gabaldon was also whisked onto the 1950's TV show "This is Your Life" with Ralph Edwards, but all of this still hasn't gotten him the one thing many people feel he deserves the most, the Medal of Honor.
Whether because of his outspokenness and fiery temperament, or because of his ethnicity, Gabaldon has never received it. His commanding officer recommended him for the Navy Cross towards the end of the war, and he didn't even receive that until Hell to Eternity raised a lot of interest in his story in 1960. But East LA Marine doesn't bother whining about these sort of things or playing the race card, it simply pays tribute to the man, as it should. It does make a strong case for Gabaldon deserving the highest recognition. Watch this for yourself, and appreciate what men like Gabaldon did in World War II, and decide. Does he deserve the Medal of Honor?
Unfortunately, the picture department is not one in which East LA Marine will impress. The DVD I watched appeared to be the one that you can buy commercially, but despite being made in this day and age, it was shot in 4x3. All of the new footage doesn't look all that good, often looking like home video footage, though the cinematography during the interviews is fine. The old documentary footage, a staple of World War II documentaries, looks wonderful and is just as compelling as ever. The picture is not very sharp or rich. Due to the fact that this is full screen, nothing is enhanced for 16x9 TV's, not even the menus.
The audio is quite standard, with 2.0 stereo. Much of the movie consists of either on-screen interviews or Prinze's narration, so 5.1 would go to waste, anyway. The music by Luis Ascanio does a good job of capturing the mood sounding appropriately official for a military documentary and tender enough at times of emotion. The mix is done well throughout, rounding out this competently made documentary.
There is only one special feature on this disc, and it is a short, behind-the-scenes featurette called "A Day in the Life of Guy Gabaldon." It is nine minutes long, and it follows him around on a modern Memorial Day as he gives a speech and meets some fans. The sound is hard to hear at times because no one walking around in front of the camera operator was mic'd. This isn't nearly as worthwhile as the feature presentation.
You're probably going to have a hard tim finding this one in stores, but it's well worth the effort if you're interested in World War II, the history of Hispanic Americans in the US, or just historical documentaries in general. It can be bought on Amazon, and that's good news for anyone who wants to see this obscure but worthwhile DVD. It completely lacks bells and whistles, but the story of Gabaldon is so interesting and relevant that DVD Talk is still going to give this one a strong "Recommended."
Check out getguythemedal.com.