Back to Bataan (1945)

One of the more horrific events in American military history, the Bataan Death March is hard to comprehend some 60-plus years later. As an event in time, it marks a low point for the U.S. military, but it often hides the rest of the Philippines involvement in WWII. While the fighting continued as the Allies island-hopped across the Pacific, guerrilla fighting raged on in the Philippines, small groups of left behind American soldiers fighting alongside Filipino natives, like 1945’s propaganda-heavy but highly entertaining Back to Bataan.

Commanding a company of Filipino scouts late in the Bataan defense in spring 1942, Colonel Joe Madden (John Wayne) is called back to HQ with special orders. In an effort to ease the pressure on the front line troops, Madden will be sent behind the lines to organize guerrilla units. As he arrives though, the Allies surrender, and the Japanese are now in charge of some 70,000 prisoners. With a small ragtag group of American soldiers, Filipino natives and Filipino scouts, Madden goes to work nipping at the Japanese war effort in the face of impossible odds. With Japanese reprisals instantaneous and brutal, Madden seeks help, one of his men, Capt. Andres Bonifacio (Anthony Quinn), the grandson of a Filipino hero, now a prisoner. Together they fight on, hoping the Allies will return to the Philippines in time.

What is most appealing and interesting about this Edward Dmytryk-directed WWII story is the timing. It was released in theaters in the United States in late May 1945. The war was still very much going on, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still two-plus months away. I’ll go into the propaganda angle later, but there’s just something appealing about the story. It is straightforward, honest and even in its force-fed attitude, entertaining. The action is kept to small doses, but when it’s there, it’s loud, chaotic and doesn’t have that whitewashed feel of a 1940s war movie, including several impressive stunts for the Duke. The military-themed score isn’t real subtle, but it works in its obvious ways. Japanese…DUN DUN DUH! Americans….Cue the hero music!

Not one of his best roles, this is nonetheless one of my favorite John Wayne performances. The 38-year old Wayne was just heading into his prime as an actor, and it ends up being an interesting middle  ground. He doesn’t look like a kid anymore, but he doesn’t look like the heavier Duke of the 1960s. As the main star here, Wayne’s Col. Madden ends up being the face of the American involvement in the guerrilla movement. Who better to lead a warring nation against invaders? A similarly very young looking Quinn gets the showier part, the disillusioned Filipino trying to decide if the fighting and cost in lives is worth it. Knowing that both Wayne and Quinn would go on to become huge stars, it’s fun seeing them in early parts as rising stars. Quinn also gets a love interest, Fely Franquelli as Dalisay Delgado, an American agent working undercover for the Japanese (think Tokyo Rose).

And then there is the propaganda. By spring 1945, the Allied forces would win the war in the Pacific, it was just a matter of time. ‘Bataan’ nonetheless lays it on pretty thick in the propaganda department. The Japanese officers (including Richard LooPhilip Ahn, and Leonard Strong) are maniacally evil, sneering, conniving and diabolical whenever possible. Loo’s Major Hasko actually pets a Filipino girl’s hair at one point, seemingly practicing to be a Bond villain. Granted, the Japanese war effort in general was despicable, inhuman and horrifically awful, but ‘Bataan’ makes it cartoonish in its portrayal. There’s also the opposite. A Filipino teacher (Vladimir Sokoloff) is hanged rather than pull down an American flag. Instead of ripping the Japanese, it builds up the glory of America, especially young Filipino fighter, Maximo (Ducky Louie), and his American teacher, Ms. Barnes (Beulah Bondi), arguing. Late, a mortally wounded Maximo wishes he could have learned to spell ‘liberty’ correctly. The weird thing? Even in its cheeseball corniness, it works somehow.

While it isn’t a classic WWII film, ‘Bataan’ is a highly entertaining movie to watch, especially in a double-bill with 1942’s Bataan. The history is interesting, the prologue showing the freeing of Allied prisoners at Cabanatuan Prison Camp (read more HERE), the real-life incident depicted in 2005’s The Great Raid. An excellent story in 2005, but in 1945 it was just four months removed from the actual incident! Timely much? The real-life P.O.W. survivors even make an appearance (watch HERE). How cool is that? Talk about a time capsule. There’s some humor as well, Paul Fix‘s displaced American hobo, Bindle, talking with Alex Havier‘s loyal and capable Filipino scout, Sgt. Bernessa, about the beauty of being a hobo. Also look for Lawrence Tierney as Lt. Waite, an American officer debriefing the guerrillas before the action-packed finale. Just a good, old-fashioned war movie, one that could have gotten bogged down in its propaganda message but manages to rise above it.

Back to Bataan (1945): *** 1/2 /****

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The Ox-Bow Incident (1943)

the_ox-bow_incident_posterThe western isn’t often thought of as a genre that delivers a lot of message films. There are exceptions of course, like The Searchers (in a way) or Dances With Wolves (good but heavy-handed). One of the best was released in 1943, The Ox-Bow Incident.

It’s 1885 in Nevada as small-time cattle ranchers Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Harry Morgan) ride into a quiet, small town in the hills looking to get a drink and a good meal. Rustlers have been working in the area, putting the ranchers and townspeople on high alert, especially when news reaches town that a popular rancher has been murdered and his cattle stolen. An angry, murderous posse forms, led by a former Confederate officer, Major Tetley (Frank Conroy), that heads out on the trail, following reports of three men herding cattle into the mountains. Are they the rustlers? If they catch up, will they be brought to justice or promptly lynched?

Based on Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s novel of the same name, ‘Ox-Bow’ is a western ahead of its time. A box office flop, there’s no action, no romance (except for one odd exception), and a story that is bleak and depressing to say the least. What’s not to love?!? From director William Wellman, it’s a gem, an honest look at the wild west. There’s no romance, no perception of the glory or honor of America’s history in the west in the late 1800s. Just an indictment of mob mentality who thinks they know what is right and wrong.

Wellman filmed ‘Ox-Bow’ on basically two sets, one a western town in the Hollywood backlots and the other an indoor set standing in for the spot where the posse catches up to the believed rustlers. It’s equal parts uncomfortable, quiet and claustrophobic, all wrapped up in a 75-minute movie. There’s one odd scene where Fonda’s Carter meets a former love on the trail, but other than that, it’s a tight, well-executed final product.

Throughout his career, Fonda had a knack for playing the Everyman, the average Joe thrust into not so average situations. He can underplay a part (in a good way) and then come to life in a flash. That’s his Gil Carter, a cowboy and rancher who wants to know the truth before acting, to think things through as much as possible. Morgan is solid as his sidekick, equally quiet and worried they might be thought of as rustlers if they start acting funny.

The rest of the cast is broken down into 2 groups, the posse and the believed rustlers. The trio of potential rustlers includes Dana Andrews in a scene-stealing part, Anthony Quinn and Francis Ford (John Ford’s older brother). Three very different parts, but the best kind of variety as the trio tries to convince the posse that they’re innocent. Andrews delivers a memorable turn especially, desperately trying to convince the posse they’ve got the wrong guys. The posse is frightening, a group of men who get angrier and angrier, their fury and rage blinding their decision-making. Along with Conroy, look for Jane Darwell, Harry Davenport (a voice of reason), Marc Lawrence, Paul Hurst, William Eythe (Tetley’s son) and Dick Rich.

When I think of dark movies like this, I describe them having a “sense of doom.” You just know watching ‘Ox-Bow’ that things aren’t going to end well. You just don’t know how it’ll go down. No spoilers here, so go in fresh without any knowledge of where the story goes. It’s a movie and a story that will no doubt stick with you long after viewing. A western classic for a reason.

The Ox-Bow Incident (1943): *** ½ /****

The Guns of Navarone (1962)

gunsofnavaroneI love westerns, I love war movies, and throw in some heist flick, sci-fi epics and secret agent movies, and I’m a happy camper. But let’s get a little more specific with my favorite sub-genre across all movies. We’re talking of course of Men on a Mission movies. One of the first and still the best, here’s 1962’s The Guns of Navarone.

It’s 1943 in the Aegean Sea and some 2,000 British soldiers are trapped on the small island of Kheros. The only option to save them is to send six destroyers in the dead of night to rescue them, but there’s a problem. The only route through the sea is defended by two immense, radar-controlled super-guns that are protected in a seemingly impregnable cave on the island of Navarone. With so much on the line, a commando team is sent in to destroy the guns, including Mallory (Gregory Peck), a commando/spy and former mountain climber, Stavrou (Anthony Quinn), a former Greek officer and Mallory’s partner, and Miller (David Niven), an explosives expert. Time is running out though, and the odds are stacked against the team. Can they somehow pull off the suicide mission and save the men on Kheros?

The late 1950s and much of the entire 1960s were packed with epic WWII movies, and ‘Guns’ belongs in that conversation right up at the top. From director J. Lee Thompson and based off a novel by Alistair MacLean, this men-on-a-mission epic has definitely stood the test of time. There are flaws (more later), but as a pure popcorn film full of excitement and adventure, it is hard to beat. Filmed on location in Rhodes and Gozo, it is a beautiful film, fully taking advantage of the widescreen format. The look of a WWII epic can get overshadowed, but it adds an element here. Composer Dimitri Tiomkin turns in an Oscar-nominated score as well, a memorable score with a good theme and familiar notes.

But how about a team of specialists on an impossible mission?!? ‘Guns’ was one of the first films to use that basic premise to its full potential. Countless others followed in the 1960s and have ever since. The formula is simple. Assemble your team of specialists, all with their unique skillset, and give them something highly dangerous and likely deadly to perform. Who makes it out? Will the job get done? There’s nothing too crazy with the premise, but when handled correctly, it’s a gem. It belongs up there with The Professionals, The Dirty Dozen, Kelly’s Heroes and Where Eagles Dare (another MacLean novel) as one of the sub-genre’s best.

This effort succeeds so well because of the casting. On my recent viewing, I came away impressed with Peck’s Mallory more than previous viewings. A capable officer, he’s thrust into an unlikely leadership role that forces him to make some incredibly uncomfortable decisions. An interesting part, and a solid character arc. Quinn is at his understated, scene-stealing best as Andrea Stavrou, a steely-eyed killer who hates the Germans. The Mallory/Stavrou history adds an excellent, mysterious edge to the story as well. And rounding out the lead trio, Niven lends some comedic effort as Miller, the explosives expert who has no real interest in war. Three Hollywood legends, and wouldn’t you know it? They all deliver.

The team also includes Brown (Stanley Baker), a mechanical expert and knife fighter, Pappadimos (James Darren), the born killer, and Franklin (Anthony Quayle), the team leader. They’re joined on Navarone by two resistance fighters, Maria (Irene Papas) and Anna (Gia Scala). Not enough for you? Plenty of familiar British faces lend supporting parts, including James Robertson Justice, Richard Harris, Percy Herbert, Bryan Forbes, Allan Cuthbertson and Walter Gotell.

It’s easy to take for granted what an impact ‘Guns’ has had on the action/adventure genre since its release in 1962. The men-on-a-mission angle especially is the key, but it laid the groundwork for so many like-minded movies in the years to come. There are flaws — a touch slow at times, especially the cliff-scaling scene; the Germans seem too stupid for their own good at times — but there are few movies that are as exciting, as fun, and simply put, well-made, as this flick from Thompson and a talented crew.

A classic for a reason. If you haven’t seen it by now, make a point of seeking it out. Hopefully you’ll like it just as much as I did!

The Guns of Navarone (1962): ****/****