“Your name must be Dixie Smith.”
“That’s right. What of it?”
“I was looking for you. They told me to keep cruising around until I found some guy about to bust a blood vessel, and that’d be you.”
To the Shores of Tripoli was another 20th Century-Fox film that was intended to sway American public opinion towards supporting the country’s involvement in World War 2. The effort was less overt than something like A Yank In The R.A.F. as it focused on the virtues of enlistment in the Marine Corps rather than any particular wartime action abroad. Nevertheless, the message was clear. The film actually began shooting in early November 1941, but with the events at Pearl Harbor in early December, the studio was able to adjust its script to recognize that fact. Shooting was completed in early January 1942 and the film was premiered in San Diego in late March, in honour of location photography having been done at the local Marine base. Fox has now released To the Shores of Tripoli on DVD as part of its Fox War Classics series.
Sarcastic and arrogant Chris Winters is expelled from the Culver Military Academy and is then ordered by his father to join the Marine Corps. Chris does so, but secretly plans to take a comfortable desk job in Washington (arranged by the father of his girlfriend Helene) once his basic training is completed. Chris’s Marine Drill Instructor is Sergeant Dixie Smith and the two take an instant dislike to each other. Chris also begins romancing the attractive Mary Carter, who turns out to be a Navy nurse with a rank equivalent of lieutenant, which means that fraternization with an enlisted man is forbidden. Despite that, Chris manages to make headway until his girlfriend Helene resurfaces. Meanwhile, the relationship between Chris and Dixie deteriorates, eventually leading to a fight between the two — a fight for which Dixie accepts the official blame so that Chris will not be forced out of the Marines for striking a superior. Soon thereafter, the platoon is involved in the repair of floating targets used for naval artillery practice and Dixie is accidentally hurt and left behind on the targets as they come under fire. Chris risks his life to save Dixie, but later claims he only did it to square accounts with Dixie for his having accepted the blame for starting their fistfight. Chris then plans to leave the Marines only to hear that the Japanese Air Force has bombed Pearl Harbor.
To the Shores of Tripoli is one of numerous Hollywood films made during the Second World War that were intended to extol the merits of one of the branches of the armed services. Those efforts made completely before the United States’s entry into the war (such as Paramount’s 1941 entry I Wanted Wings about the Army Air Corps) or mainly before (such as To the Shores of Tripoli), tended to focus entirely on recruit training. Only later did these service films (such as Guadalcanal Diary, also about the Marines) start to include combat sequences. This fact is one of the drawbacks to To the Shores of Tripoli. The basic training script probably seemed fresher 60 years ago, but now we’ve seen this sort of thing so often and in relation to so many different wars that sequences such as falling out at the crack of dawn or inept marching, and characters such as the tough-as-nails sergeant or the know-it-all recruit are clichés.
It doesn’t help that Fox didn’t assign its A-team to this film. John Payne, who stars as Chris Winters, certainly worked steadily as a leading man at Fox in the 1940s, but he never really did outgrow the sort of sarcastic character he portrays here, eventually drifting into minor-A westerns in the 1950s. Randolph Scott was well cast as Sergeant Dixie Smith, but although he was a fine actor, he was not a major box office draw at the time, only becoming so when he began to specialize in westerns in the late 1940s. Maureen O’Hara, who plays Mary Carter, was still early in her career at this time. There was some chemistry between her and Payne on screen, although that wouldn’t be capitalized on completely until their appearance together in 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street. Director Bruce Humberstone was certainly from Fox’s second echelon of directors. He does a competent enough job here, given the material, but he was generally more comfortable with action or musical material, neither of which this film really had.
For those interested in the character actor embarrassment of riches that Hollywood had in the 1940s, the following individuals can be found in the film: Harry Morgan (Colonel Potter of TV’s MASH fame — this film was his debut), William Tracy, Maxie Rosenbloom, Russell Hicks, Minor Watson, Alan Hale Jr., Richard Lane, Frank Coghlan Jr., and Hugh Beaumont.
Fox has released To the Shores of Tripoli on DVD full frame in accord with its original aspect ratio. The print looks very crisp aside from the odd speckle. Blacks are deep and whites very clean. Shadow detail is excellent. All of that makes it sound like what we have here is a very fine transfer by Fox, except for one little thing. This film was originally released in Technicolor, and not only that was nominated for an Academy Award for best colour cinematography. The back of the DVD case twice makes mention of the fact that the film is in colour. Yet Fox gives us a black and white transfer? That’s false advertising, and completely unacceptable. Even the previous VHS release was in colour as far as I can remember. (It was common practice for studios to re-release films to theatres and sometimes substitute black and white versions for what had been originally colour releases. Such a version may have been used as the source material for this DVD, given that the theatrical trailer that accompanies it is a re-release version — “a 20th Century-Fox Encore Triumph.” That may explain why this DVD is the way it is, but it doesn’t excuse it, particularly when the DVD advertises itself on the case as being in colour.)
We get Dolby Digital 2.0 mono and stereo tracks, which as with other entries in this series, have little of consequence to differentiate between them. Other than a few marching band numbers, this film is mainly dialogue and it’s adequately handled by either track. Age-related hiss or distortion is not an issue. English and Spanish subtitles are included, but no French.
A re-release theatrical trailer (rather beaten-up and also in black and white) and trailers for a number of other Fox war films make up the DVD’s package of supplements.
To the Shores of Tripoli is a service flag-waver that remains tied to the base, never getting to the field of battle. The familiarity with such material plus some lackluster casting decisions mark this as a minor film even though Fox obviously thought enough of it to film in Technicolor at a time when that was definitely the exception rather than the rule. Fox, however, denies us any pleasure that aspect might have given us by unacceptably delivering a DVD in black and white for some unstated reason.