Promising much but delivering little, Battle of the Coral Sea (1959) is a lower-budgeted pastiche of much better movies. The title, poster art, and coming attractions trailer are misleading: the Battle of the Coral Sea doesn't commence until the movie is nearly over, about five minutes before the end. Instead, the picture starts out as a routine submarine movie then transitions into a low-rent Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) by way of The Camp on Blood Island (1957) - weakly referencing popular movies that, like Battle of the Coral Sea, were distributed by Columbia.
Part of Sony's terrific "Columbia Classics" line of DVD-Rs, Battle of the Coral Sea at least gets an excellent 1.85:1 enhanced widescreen presentation, along with an action-packed, hard-sell trailer.
Three months after Pearl Harbor and three days after the fall of Corregidor, the crew of the U.S.S. Dragonfish, a submarine commanded by Jeff Conway (Cliff Robertson), is charged with locating ships from the Japanese fleet positioning themselves near Port Moresby, New Guinea, the vanguard of a possible invasion of Australia. Conway's instructions include grim orders to sacrifice his men and scuttle his sub in the event he's about to be captured.
Using a camera cleverly attached to the ship's periscope, the crew is able to gather an extraordinary amount of photographic details about the Japanese fleet's make-up and movements, but the Dragonfish runs into some mines and the sub is quickly surrounded by scuba divers - a neat trick as such gear wasn't in use during World War II.
(Spoilers) Conway manages to scuttle his submarine without sacrificing his men. Most are marched off to parts unknown, but intelligence officer Commander Mori (Teru Shimada) orders Conway, Lt. Len Ross (Gene Blakely), torpedo man Bates (Gordon Jones, The Abbott & Costello Show), Yeoman Halliday (Peckinpah stock company member L.Q. Jones), and Ensign Franklin (Billy Jack's Tom Laughlin) taken to a special camp. There they meet two British prisoners, Lt. Peg Whitcomb (The Tingler's Patricia Cutts) and Maj. Jimmy Harris (Robin Hughes, Twilight Zone). Cutts's character seems deliberately patterned after Virginia McKenna, who was captured by the Nazis in Carve Her Name with Pride (1957). Italian-accented Karen Phillips (Gia Scala) is not a P.O.W. - she declares herself "neutral" but acts as the Japanese's interpreter, though someone else dubs her Japanese.
Most of the film is a battle of wills between Conway and Mori similar but nowhere near as interesting as that found in Bridge on the River Kwai. In that film there was an emphasis on the contrasting military cultures, on matters of principal and losing face, and general pig-headedness. Battle of the Coral Sea's screenplay is strictly by the numbers and much more basic. Conway is the grimly determined skipper who'll not give an inch with Mori the erudite, cultured nemesis convinced a psychological approach is preferable to standard physical torture.
Beyond the uninspired writing, not helping matters is Japanese-American Shimada's dull performance as Mori. A monotonous, inexpressive actor, Shimada had a face that was just right for a variety of Japanese roles: officers in war movies, government officials, company presidents. Visually he was a kind of Nisei Takashi Shimura but in large roles tends to be dull as dishwater. He's probably best remembered as industrialist Mr. Osato in the James Bond movie You Only Live Twice (1967). His performance is pretty wooden in that, too.
Battle of the Coral Sea is a patchwork of war movie clichés, from Bates selling $1 periscope peepshows of women exercising onshore, to the climatic shoot-out in which characters are knocked-off in reverse order of their billing. A movie on this scale can't be expected to compete with a huge-budget one like Kwai but at least it could have been luridly entertaining like Hammer's The Camp on Blood Island, a violent and controversial hit for Columbia the year before. Instead it's just dull and occasionally preposterous. Two examples of the latter come near the climax, when our heroes expertly fashion bows and arrows out of thread and soft wood found in their barracks, all in the span of about 20 minutes, while elsewhere Karen manages to knock out a prison yard light with a rock despite obviously missing it by at least five feet.
If you can hang on till the end, the last 15 minutes or so of Battle of the Coral Sea at least pack in a lot of action. Robinson Crusoe on Mars's Paul Mantee and prolific player John Zaremba turn up at the very end, and Star Trek's George Takei is in there somewhere though I didn't spot him.
When the battle of the title finally unfolds, with the main characters decidedly off on the sidelines, the picture briefly becomes an orgy of real wartime footage, Hollywood stock shots, and very elaborate miniature effects, also culled from other movies, including possibly some Japanese films whose miniatures were supervised by effects master Eiji Tsuburaya (Godzilla).
Charles H. Schneer and his Morningside Productions produced Battle of the Coral Sea. Schneer is best remembered for his nearly career-long partnership with another effects master, Ray Harryhausen. Quite unfairly Schneer usually gets all of the blame for their films' deficiencies and none of the credit for their success. Proof of Schneer's better-than-competent skills can be found in some of his non-Harryhausen productions, but not this one, alas.
Video & Audio
Filmed for Columbia's standard 1.85:1 cropping for non-'scope movies, Battle of the Coral Sea looks great with a sharp picture, good contrast, etc. No complaints there, nor with the region-free DVD-R disc's mono audio (English only, with no subtitle options). There are the usual chapter stops every ten minutes, but no other menu options, save for that lone Extra Feature, an amusing trailer, complete with narration and text.
Sony's "Columbia Classics" program has turned up a number of little gems and fun cult movie releases worthy of rediscovery. This one doesn't quite cut it, though I'm still glad to have been able to see it, and in such a fine 16:9 enhanced widescreen presentation. Rent It.
Stuart Galbraith IV's audio commentary for AnimEigo's Tora-san, a DVD boxed set, is on sale now.