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 Loo, Philip 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 /****