Minesweeper

Minesweeper. Paramount Pictures 1943.

Before watching the movie:

Sometimes I like to watch movies I have zero clue about before I see them. I know about one sentence about this movie. The protagonist is a Navy deserter re-enlisting under a false name to serve in the war. It’s supposedly very exciting, though that’s rarely the case for movies from this time.

After watching the movie:

Days after Pearl Harbor, Richard Houston gets thrown out of a boxcar by the other hobos for arguing in favor of every able-bodied man signing up for duty. He’s found by “Fixit” Smith, a handyman going home to reactivate his Navy service as a CPO. Houston claims his name is Jim “Tennessee” Smith, and enlists claiming experience as a salvage diver. Staying at Fixit’s mother’s home, he meets Fixit’s niece Mary, and is immediately smitten, soon drawing her attentions away from another Navy beau who was about to propose to her. Tight-lipped about his secret past, Houston, actually a deserter Navy Lieutenant, gets assigned to a minesweeper as a Gunner’s Mate and builds an honorable life for himself with the Navy, gaining attention for spotting and recovering new enemy detonator tech, though he has a weakness for Mary and for gambling. But all of that is put at risk when a diving accident puts him in the hospital and his commanding officer notes his one keepsake from his old life, a pocketwatch identifying him by name as an academy graduate.

I’m sure this was made as propaganda promoting enlistment, showing a man with a checkered past getting a new start in the Navy and earning his honor back. The Navy didn’t assist with the production out of their love of cinema. There are a few tense scenes, mostly dive sequences. Disarming a bomb is suspenseful, doing it underwater with air piped from the boat above even moreso. Unfortunately, the distressed print I saw was so dark in those scenes I couldn’t make out much of what I was seeing.

This is a sweet, but small story. The summary promised a lot of action, but I don’t think it was considered action even at the time. It’s actually relatively uncomplicated. Pretty much the only conflict is Houston’s secret identity, which isn’t that hard to keep in the 1940s. Once he knows a real identity that nobody’s using, he can just send a wire for an expedited delivery of the other man’s birth certificate with no need to prove he’s someone who should be allowed to use it.

I would’ve appreciated some more of an impression that he feels a class difference between serving as an officer and working as an enlisted man, but he seems to have put any ambition he had behind him and truly want to just serve his country in any way the Navy will have him. Again, there’s an element of propaganda there. There was a communal spirit of doing your part in this country during WWII, but I think it’s been exaggerated by the propaganda that fostered it and nostalgia from the people who lived it. It would be interesting to get a more nuanced look at the wartime climate than contemporary popular media allowed, but of course that wouldn’t get anywhere near a movie sponsored by the Department of Defense like this, and for what it is, it’s nice.