Destination Gobi is a 1953 Technicolor war film starring Richard Widmark and the first color feature film directed by Robert Wise. Set during World War II, US Navy chief Sam McHale (Widmark) takes command of a unit of weather observers stranded behind Japanese lines in Inner Mongolia. McHale must lead his men across the treacherous Gobi Desert to the coast. Mongols the sailors had befriended, led by chief Tengu (Murvyn Vye), help them elude the Japanese and steal a junk to reach Okinawa.
After the picture's opening credits, a written foreword reads:
In the Navy records in Washington, there is an obscure entry reading "Saddles for Gobi." This film is based on the story behind that entry--one of the strangest stories of World War II.
The unit involved was part of the Sino-American Cooperative Organization (SACO), referred to as Sino-American Combined Operations in the film.
In November 1944, Chief Boatswain's Mate Sam McHale (Richard Widmark) is aghast to learn that he is being transferred from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise to Argos Detachment 6, a Navy unit operating a weather station in Inner Mongolia's Gobi Desert. Capt. Gates (Willis Bouchey) explains to McHale that accurate forecasts are crucial to the Allies' success in the Pacific, and that his practical experience is required by meteorologist Commander Hobart Wyatt (Russell Collins) and his crew of "balloon chasers": Jenkins (Don Taylor), Walter Landers (Max Showalter), Wilbur "Coney" Cohen (Darryl Hickman), Elwood Halsey (Martin Milner), Frank Swenson (Earl Holliman) and Paul Sabatello (Ross Bagdasarian). Despite his longing for the ocean after six months in the desert, McHale adjusts to the new routine, although his dependence on red tape and the chain of command bemuses Cmdr. Wyatt.
Three weeks before they are to be relieved, the Argos 6 team learns that Japanese cavalry is scouring the desert for the unit, and McHale starts work constructing defenses for the outpost. The group is also baffled when nomadic Mongols camp at the station's oasis. After determining that the Navy men are not interested in the oasis' grass, the Mongol leader, Kengtu (Murvyn Vye), expresses no further interest in them until Elwood attempts to take photographs of the tribe. The Mongols react with hostility until McHale gains Kengtu's respect by showing him how the camera works. The next day, Kengtu orders his people to return the many things they have stolen from the station, although McHale allows them to keep his own cap and Wyatt's dress uniform. Later that day, the Navy men learn that due to increasing pressure from the enemy, they will not be relieved. Former cowboy Jenkins muses that the Mongol horsemen would make an excellent cavalry. Hoping to persuade the Mongols to help them defend the station, McHale makes an emergency requisition for sixty Army cavalry saddles, and although the request is met with bewilderment, the saddles soon arrive and the delighted Mongols begin training with Commander Wyatt, who dubs them the "1st Mongolian Cavalry, U.S. Navy."
The camp is bombed by Japanese planes, killing Wyatt and several Mongols, and destroying the radio. McHale is disappointed when the Mongols disappear, leaving them alone and defenseless. Rather than walking 300 miles to the nearest weather station, which might also have been attacked, McHale decides to evacuate 800 miles to the sea and sail to join US forces on Okinawa. At an oasis where some Chinese traders are camped, they find Kengtu and his people. McHale confronts the chief for failing to help the navy as promised. Kengtu explains that he was protecting his people from the "birds in the sky" but agrees to put the question of helping the Americans to his people. The Mongols return the saddles. Chinese trader Yin Tang (Edgar Barrier) then barters for the saddles, offering four camels, and suggests that the Americans travel with his group. That night the treacherous Yin Tang attempts to kill them, to steal back the camels, but is stopped by the arrival of Kengtu and his men.
Kengtu tells McHale that his people want the saddles back and will escort the Americans to the sea if they disguise themselves in native garb. McHale agrees, although the men worry that they will be considered spies if they are captured. All goes well until they reach the Chinese city of Sangchien, which turns out to be occupied by the Japanese. Mongol Tomec (Rodolfo Acosta) appears to persuade Kengtu to lead Argos 6 into a trap by Japanese soldiers. The Navy men are taken to a prisoner-of-war camp on the coast where they are held as spies to be shot. However, one of Kengtu's men, Wali-Akhun (Leonard Strong), allows himself to be arrested while wearing Wyatt's stolen uniform. Wali reveals that Kengtu has arranged for their escape, and that night they break out of the camp and to the docks, where Kengtu is waiting with a Chinese junk. Kengtu explains to McHale that their capture was a ploy to trick the Japanese into transporting them to the ocean. Coney is killed during the escape, however, and the novice sailors soberly set sail for Okinawa. The junk is spotted by American planes, which are about to bomb it until they see a large sign, with the inscription "U.S.S. Cohen" painted on it. The men are rescued, and soon after, Kengtu and Wali are returned to their people, along with sixty saddle blankets. Kengtu and McHale say farewell, and when McHale tries to explain that he is not the head chief of the Navy, as Kengtu had mistakenly thought, Kengtu replies that it is the Navy's mistake, not his.Richard Widmark as CPO Samuel T. McHale
Don Taylor as Jenkins
Max Showalter as Walter Landers
Murvyn Vye as Kengtu
Darryl Hickman as Wilbur 'Coney' Cohen
Earl Holliman as Frank Swenson
Martin Milner as Elwood Halsey
Ross Bagdasarian Sr. (credited as Ross Bagdasarian) as Paul Sabatello
Judy Dan as Nura-Salu (as Judy Dann)
Rodolfo Acosta as Tomec
Russell Collins as Lt. Cmdr. Hobart Wyatt
Leonard Strong as Wali-Akhun