The star is John Wayne, who plays the fearless and excitable owner of a highly skilled construction outfit. They are as ready for action as he is. Navy officer Dennis O'Keefe attempts to talk Wayne and his men into joining the nascent Seabees and build landing strips, etc. on Pacific islands for the war against Japan.
Plucky hottie Susan Hayward is O'Keefe's girlfriend, and also a Navy officer. But she develops eyes for Wayne, though he tries (unconvincingly) to brush her off in favor of O'Keefe.
Soon the cast is on an obscure tropical island, preparing it for a Navy base. They must fend off a Japanese invasion. Casualties ensue, Hayward is nearly killed, and Wayne admits he is wrong: the construction workers must be trained to be soldiers by the military, before they are armed. This is accomplished, and further heroics ensue, featuring John Wayne himself.
How I felt about it. Modern viewers are taken aback by the racism displayed by The Fighting Seabees. Wayne once refers to the Japanese as "bug-eyed monkeys". He can be at least partially forgiven, since it is wartime, he is a hothead, and the Japanese have been killing his crew.
Worse, The Japanese snipers, pilots, and soldiers are often ugly, and grin maliciously before using an unfair advantage to take out American servicemen. The blame for this belongs to Edward Ludwig, a director since the silent era who worked steadily (if unspectacularly) into his sixties. The Fighting Seabees is his most prominent credit, along with two other John Wayne vehicles, the sea adventure Wake of the Red Witch and the embarrassing Red Menace potboiler Big Jim McLain.
Beyond the racism, the plot relies heavily on a too-familiar love triangle involving vivacious and gorgeous Susan Hayward and her older and taller Lieutenant Commander boyfriends. Hayward would like to conquer Wayne, who is, after all, the leading man. But O'Keefe is the more reliable standby.
Despite the above flaws, and the cast's excessive enthusiasm to die for their country, The Fighting Seabees is a highly watchable film. The fast-moving story and the snappy screenplay are credited to Borden Chase, one of the best writers of the 1940s and 1950s. The cast is entertaining, and includes William Frawley, the future "I Love Lucy" costar, who is already too old to be credible as a uniformed soldier.
How others will see it. The film's racism is a turn-off for enlightened modern viewers. Most regard the movie as a competent but by-the-numbers war movie, with a requisite romance inserted to entice a female audience.
The movie apparently made money but was well down the list of the biggest grossing films. It did receive an Oscar nomination, a sign of contemporary approval, for its score.
Today at imdb.com, it only has a middling 2500 user votes, about one-tenth of the Humphrey Bogart film To Have and Have Not, released the same year. The user rating of 6.5 out of 10 is somewhat lower than expected, although older audiences grade it 6.7, slightly higher.