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New Army Remembers: We’ve Never Been Licked

Looking back on the Aggie wartime artifact that was never meant to last.

Universal Pictures

A quick author’s note: This is the inaugural New Army Remembers column, where I look back at cultural moments and artifacts from Texas A&M’s past as a recent graduate with an English minor and a surplus of unwarranted self-importance. I wrote most of this article before the pandemic escalated and considered altering parts of it to comment on What We’re All Going Through afterward, but I’d much prefer to present it as it is in all its dumb pettiness. Thanks and Gig ’em.

During my freshman year at Texas A&M University, I wasn’t so much drinking the Kool-Aid as I was freebasing the cherry-flavored powder straight from the packet. Even though I’d grown up in College Station and attended many a game with my dad, it wasn’t until Fish Camp that I went full Manchurian Candidate, transforming into the maroon-and-white sleeper cell agent I was always meant to be almost overnight.

I was…obsessively redass. I replaced my entire wardrobe with $15 maroon t-shirts. I stayed until the very end of the 2015 Ball State game after we’d already hung 56 points on them. I rewatched the 1998 Big XII Championship game and devoted Dave South’s iconic radio call on the winning play to memory. Presumably, you could’ve slapped a block T logo on an exceptionally shiny pile of dog shit and I would’ve stilled shelled out forty bucks for it as long as it had official Adidas branding.

This is all to emphasize that, at that wonderfully naïve point in my life, when I was the most devoted Aggie I will ever be, my first attempt to watch We’ve Never Been Licked ended in me abandoning the movie 40 minutes in to do anything else. It’s a bad movie! And not because it’s old. It’s poorly made and a chore to watch relative to movies made in the same era.

So, why have generations of Aggies dumped money and effort into its preservation? Why do screenings of the film consistently garner big enough crowds to warrant further screenings? What is it about this ugly duckling of a film, mocked by critics upon its release and either hated or forgotten by its most notable actor, Robert Mitchum, that has kept it alive in old Ags’ hearts all these years?

Presented by Walter Wanger, directed by Some Guy.
Universal Pictures

We’ve Never Been Licked is a 1943 propaganda movie about a young man who trusts the Japanese, attends Texas A&M and then slowly learns to distrust the Japanese. The first half of the movie is dedicated to a series of sequences in which our strapping protagonist, Brad Craig, encounters one of Texas A&M’s traditions, acts confused, and then settles on going with the flow to fit in. These sequences are essentially why Aggies watch this movie now, which makes it all the stranger that they are the hardest parts to get through without falling asleep.

There is a simple novelty in seeing Aggieland as it once was—one scene in Sbisa showing hundreds of cadets packing row after row of the old dining hall comes to mind—but Brad Craig is a black hole through which all charisma falls, never to be seen again. He has the makings of an archetypal cadet-out-of-water. He’s intelligent, socially awkward, well versed in East Asian culture and poorly-versed in women. He’s a Greatest Generation weeaboo if there ever was one.

Sadly, he’s played by actor Richard Quine, who would eventually pivot to directing after We’ve Never Been Licked’s release for the same reason high school prom kings eventually pivot to real estate and pyramid schemes. He just didn’t have it.

To make matters worse, Brad doesn’t do a single kind or likable thing until an impromptu act of heroism 40 minutes in. He saves a runaway wagon from careening down one of College Station’s famously steep hills and saves his buddy. After this, he swiftly fails upward through the ranks of the Corps of Cadets, which I’m told by my cadet friends is the most realistic part of the whole movie.

College Station, Texas, folks!
Universal Pictures

We’ve Never Been Licked also includes a love triangle that forms when Brad and his much cooler friend, Cyanide, both vie for the attention of a professor’s daughter, Nina, whose defining character trait is having two X chromosomes. Brad and Nina go for a stroll down Military Walk that Brad spends rambling about the Corps to himself instead of properly flirting with a pretty girl (another lasting tradition among cadets, I’m told).

After that goes nowhere, Nina spends more time with Cyanide, which Brad seems completely fine with. Nina and Cyanide, however, inexplicably feel guilty about dating in front of Brad and drag out their courtship for four years until Brad gives them his blessing to bone as they please. This somehow takes about 70 minutes to develop. It may be the most pointless love triangle in any work of fiction.

Brad, Nina, and Cyanide hang out after Midnight Yell. Note Nina’s body language: facing away from our hero and toward someone with a personality.
Universal Pictures

Earlier, I said the movie was about Brad learning to distrust the Japanese. This is, as far as I can tell, his character arc. Brad arrives in College Station having spent the last few years on a U.S. Army base in the Philippines with his dad, a respected colonel. He’s fluent in Japanese and enamored by the strides in agriculture that are being made in the region.

At his first Midnight Yell, he meets two Japanese students played by Chinese actors, Kubo and Matsui, and immediately bonds with them quicker than he does with his squad-mates. When other cadets plot to haze him, his Japanese friends tip him off, allowing him to turn the tables.

As the movie rolls on and tensions between the U.S. and Axis powers rise, Brad’s friendship with Kubo and Matsui singles him out for ridicule as the dorm’s resident “J**-lover.” An argument over stories of Japanese war crimes in The Battalion puts Brad in the unenviable position of having to choose whether to side with his countrymen, who have made his life hell, or Kubo and Matsui, who have consistently stood up for him but also stand up for Hirohito.

Of course, the right choice in the movie is to dump his Japanese friends, who are both heartless spies after all. On the night of Bonfire, a chemistry professor tells Brad about a formula he’s been working on for a chemical weapon that could turn the tide of the impending war and would be bad in enemy hands, etc. Brad suggests hiding two separate formulas: one real, one fake.

“Howdy, trustworthy companions!”
Universal Pictures

Not five minutes later, Kubo and Matsui break into the lab, knock Brad over the head and grab the dummy formula. When Brad comes to, he tracks the two down to a secret hideout where they’re working in cahoots with two other Japanese spies, one of whom is played by a white actor in hideous yellowface because 1943 propaganda movie. Brad reveals himself and seemingly turns heel to help the Japanese Empire for bribe money. At some point, the spies talk about an imminent attack on Pearl Harbor, information with which Brad does diddly squat.

After his supposed treason is exposed, Brad gets pushed out of the university months before graduation and returns to East Asia to start recording English-language propaganda for the Japanese Navy. This is how he secures a passenger seat in a Mitsubishi Zero fighter during the Japanese assault on the Solomon Islands.

Suddenly, Brad strangles the Japanese pilot sitting in front of him and radios an American pilot who just so happens to be his old buddy, Cyanide. Cyanide informs Brad that he hates his stinking guts, but Brad reveals that he was a double agent for Uncle Sam all along! He just didn’t tell anyone (including any U.S. organization or bureau that could have helped him out)! Still, Brad delivers critical battle intelligence to Cyanide before steering the Zero toward one of the Japanese carriers and dying a hero’s death.

Brad Craig deciding to be cool mere moments before death.
Universal Pictures

Thus, we arrive at the great twist of this old movie about Texas A&M, which is that it is most definitely not about Texas A&M. It’s not about the Corps or Midnight Yell or Bonfire or the spirit can ne’er be told. It’s about delivering a fictional patriot’s tale the U.S. government felt its citizens needed in wartime by smuggling it into the back end of a mind-numbingly boring story about the simple pleasures and challenges of college life.

Unintentionally, it’s also about how war forces everyone to become colder and less trusting of one another. Friends turn against friends, ousting whoever identifies with the enemy and ostracizing anyone who fails to do the same. What starts as perverse fantasies in power-hungry leaders’ minds results not just in millions of physical deaths on the battlefield but in millions of spiritual ones away from it.

I haven’t talked about the rampant racism of this movie much, and that’s partly because I’m a 22-year-old white dude and no one is lining up around the block to hear me talk about how racism is bad, even against the backdrop of the deadliest war humanity has ever seen. If I wanted to set off TexAgs politics board posters that bad, I would just tell them I think Reveille is gay or something. I’ll only say that the first casualty of any war is innate humanity, and that’s well reflected here.

But no one talks about We’ve Never Been Licked because of what it actually is in its historical context. The only reason anyone talks about this movie is because of its façade. Its producers’ biggest mistake was failing to capitalize on its setting. They could have shot most of the script at any old military school, but they chose to shoot at Texas A&M probably because they figured it was a bastion of patriotism with a strong “hazing is amazing” attitude and a deep-rooted belief in some sort of spirit that binds us all together. They just didn’t know how to effectively show any of that on screen.

After all these years, the only thing that’s kept this movie in peoples’ minds is Aggieland, the old campus that sort of whizzes by in the background of a dumb war movie. The preservation effort behind We’ve Never Been Licked can only mean one of two things: Either people are willingly forgetful of how bad this movie is; or by golly, that’s one special old campus.

Universal Pictures

A few months ago, the Queen showed We’ve Never Been Licked, advertising the screening on Facebook as an opportunity to see the old Aggieland. The night of the screening, a respectable crowd of mostly old Ags shuffled in past the cutesy concession stand and into the modest theater. They listened as a theater employee took to the front of the auditorium to introduce the film.

He spoke of a movie made in a different world for a different town. He rattled off a few bits of trivia and thanked everyone for coming. Finally, the lights faded. The digital projector quietly beamed the grainy film-to-video transfer to the screen from the back. No one made a sound. Despite the movie’s failures, deep and unignorable as they are, that crowd smiled brightly at the opportunity to go back. Shitty acting, awful pacing, and dated caricatures were all present, but they were treated as cosmetic dents in a fully-functioning time machine.

That’s the downside of nostalgia, of course. It takes the messy, uncomfortable and sometimes discouraging process of looking clearly at the past and throws it out in favor of envisioning an idyllic time or place or person or thing that never truly was. It’s a hustle in which we’re both the mark and the con man. Sometimes it’s harmless. Sometimes it isn’t.

Though presumably, no one in the theater was old enough to have stepped on campus as Fish Craig did in 1938, more than a few remembered doing the same in 1963 or 1987 or 2015. They remembered the anxiety of living on their own for the first time, the confusion of encountering traditions they didn’t understand, and the camaraderie that eventually came with spending a few semesters in hell with other dumb kids just like them.

They saw Texas A&M, that old familiar place. And it still felt like home…

…or at least, that’s how I imagine the screening went. Hell if I was ever going to sit that shitty old movie again.

Universal Pictures