Bataan (1943)

That John Ford, he left his fingerprints wherever he went. His classic 1934 war film The Lost Patrol was spun and spun quickly into remakes over the next 20 or so years, including westerns, Last of the Comanches (an underrated gem), a Soviet film using the same premise, and two World War II movies released the same year in 1943, Sahara and Bataan. Today’s review. A Pacific setting with Bataan.

In the months following the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces sweep across the Pacific against an unprepared American army. The fighting is especially rough on the Bataan peninsula, American forces retreating and defending with ever-dwindling supplies. Small forces are being ordered to hold their positions, including Sergeant Bill Dane (Robert Taylor) and Corporal Jake Feingold (Thomas Mitchell). Their mission? Blow up a key bridge over a deep mountain pass and prevent Japanese forces from rebuilding the bridge and advancing on the retreating army. They join a small squad that’s been assembled to do the job, commanded by Captain Henry Lassiter (Lee Bowman), and pull it off, the bridge going up in a huge, ground-shaking explosion. Lassiter is killed soon after though by a Japanese sniper, leaving a command void. Sgt. Dane steps in, pulling the men together as they prepare to hold off a Japanese force that’s increasing in numbers by the hour.

World War II is often remembered for the Allied victories like D-Day, Iwo Jima and countless others. The defeats? Not so much. This isn’t a defeat. This is the WWII defeat. Outnumbered and under-supplied, American and Filipino forces held out for three months before surrendering and ultimately becoming part of the infamous, horrifying Bataan Death March. How then do you spin that story to an audience during a war where the fighting raged stronger than ever? You don’t spin it. You present it almost as is with all the gruesome, hard-to-watch truths. From director Tay Garnett, this is a no-frills, brutally dark and effective anti-war movie that manages to illustrate the heroism of those men fighting on Bataan.

Movies released during a war about said war tend to be straight, out-and-out propaganda flicks, stories and characters meant to inspire and get the audience’s patriotic juices flowing. This movie….does not, not in the typical sense at least. Without resorting to any flag-waving tactics, ‘Bataan’ lays things out there about the heroism of the soldiers fighting on Bataan. The truth of it is that these men were basically abandoned by the government and armed forces because rescue simply wasn’t possible. They did a nasty job all the while knowing that the end of the road would not be a pleasant one. Here in ‘Bataan,’ a small 13-man squad is stationed in the jungle on a remote hillside overlooking a bridge in a mountain pass. This battle will not change the course of the war or even be remembered, but in the face of impossible, almost suicidal odds, these men stayed and fought. A true story? Nothing documented, but you know firefights and battles like this happened, and that’s what rings true the strongest.

This ahead of its time WWII flick gets points because of its casting. The squad left behind to do the job features an array of multi-ethnic characters, including white, black, Hispanic and Filipino soldiers defending the bridge. I’m typically hurt or miss about Robert Taylor, but this is one of his absolute best. His Sergeant Bill Dane is the American soldier, a tough, no-nonsense veteran trying to hold his command together. His growling voice, his chin covered with a two-day growth of beard, he looks like a tough NCO you’d want to follow into battle. Some of the movie’s strongest dramatic moments have Dane quietly considering if what he’s doing is right, if maybe he should give the order to retreat. But no, a soldier’s duty is a soldier’s duty, even if doing his job is incredibly dangerous and could likely claim both his life and the lives of all his men. Kudos to Mr. Taylor, an excellent, scene-stealing performance.

A forerunner of movies like The Dirty Dozen, ‘Bataan’ features an ensemble cast of actors from different ages, ethnicities and backgrounds. In 1943…so that’s impressive. Along with Taylor and Mitchell, look for Lt. Bentley (George Murphy), the pilot with a busted plane, Cpl. Todd (Lloyd Nolan), the troublemaker, Purckett (Robert Walker), the talkative sailor, Ramirez (Desi Arnaz), the tough Latino out of Los Angeles, Matowski (Barry Nelson), an engineer, Hardy (Phillip Terry), the medic, Katigback (Roque Espiritu), a Filipino pilot, Salazar (Alex Havier), the Filipino scout, Eeps (Kenneth Spencer), an African-American soldier and demo expert, and Malloy (Tom Dugan), the grizzled vet and cook. In as subtle fashion as possible, the cast shows the complete effort of the war, that everyone was involved in fighting and working together. White, black, Filipino, Hispanic, any and all, a cast and story ahead of its time concerning war movies.

Maybe the most striking thing about the movie is its portrayal of violence. We’re not talking Peckinpah-esque blood squibs, but there is blood. The violence is brutal and harsh without being graphic. It is quick and hard-hitting, the camera never lingering too long on any one scene. Characters are dispatched without warning, often in shocking fashion. An extended hand-to-hand combat scene late actually has the film sped up, giving the fighting a frantic, chaotic feel. The movie is interested in getting a message across, but again, handles it in incredibly subtle fashion. What is it? Sacrifices have to be made in war, and here, these men are ready to give their lives to hold this otherwise pointless speck on the map. The ending especially works, maybe the only real incident of true propaganda in the entire movie, but it just flows. A very emotionally effective ending.

Oh, and one more thing. ‘Bataan’ was filmed mostly on an indoor set, a claustrophobic, congested jungle flush with vegetation. Fog rolls in, blanketing the outpost at almost all times. Japanese snipers are all around, an almost entirely unseen enemy just waiting to strike. As far as mood and setting the scene, this WWII film is pretty perfect. The whole movie is for that matter. A gem of a film, one of the first anti-war films I can remember. Gutsy considering it was released right in the midst of the war.

Bataan (1943): ****/****

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