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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Island in the Sky (1953)

island_in_the_sky_281953_film29_posterSince I moved over to WordPress from Blogger this past fall, I’ve struggled with what to review. Life gets in the way and what not, huh? Should I stick with solely westerns? Guy’s guys movies in general? I’d been sticking with westerns of late, but when watching 1953’s Island in the Sky, I had to expand the parameters a little bit. A John Wayne movie many fans have never heard of, much less seen, it’s a hidden gem, a true classic.

It’s early in World War II and many civilian pilots have been enlisted in the armed forces to help transport supplies to Europe. One of the routes is over Canada to Greenland and eastward into England and beyond. Among those pilots is Dooley (Wayne), a longtime flier, and his four-man crew. In horrific weather, Dooley’s plane goes off-course and the pilot is forced to land in the wilderness of Labrador, mostly uncharted land that’s never been explored. With food in short supply and temperatures at -70 degrees, the five men must band together to survive. All over the region though, civilian pilots report in to aid in the search. In the uncharted wilderness though, the search proves to be almost impossible across 10,000 square miles. Can the rescue effort find them? Can Dooley and his crew hold out?

Originally released in 1953, ‘Island’ went unseen for over 20 years as it languished under copyright and legal issues. It was finally settled on released on DVD in the early 2000s with another Wayne aviation movie, The High and the Mighty (also recommended). Some 15 years before disaster movies were in style, both films set the bar high and are obvious influences on countless flicks to come (both serious and spoof). ‘Island’ is as straightforward as they come with a downed crew and the rescue effort in the air. No frills, no tricks, just a survival movie at its absolute best. A must-see film.

Director William Wellman had a pilot’s background himself, flying in a fighter in WWI. He’d done several aviation movies already — including 1927’s Wings — and just has a knack for it. ‘Island’ is filmed in a stark, haunting black and white that adds a layer to the film. With color filming, it would lose some of its minimalist edge. The aerial sequences are quite impressive as WWII-era planes fly through weather, in and around mountain ranges, and all in sub-zero, frigid temperatures. Much of the movie is spent in tough, cramped quarters on the search planes, and we’re there with the pilots the whole way. A solid musical score from Emil Newman and an uncredited Hugo Friedhofer underplays all the action.

Rarely mentioned as one of Wayne’s best, this definitely belongs in the conversation with The Searchers, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and The Shootist. His part as veteran pilot Dooley is his most human part. He’s not a superhero, a cowboy, a war hero. He’s just a good pilot trying his damnedest to get his crew home safe. The voiceover narration Wayne delivers adds an excellent element to the character as we see his doubts creeping into his head while trying to hold the situation together. There’s a good twist in the final scene too concerning his character. Nothing crazy, but it adds a nice touch. As for the crew, look for Sean McClory as Lovatt, the co-pilot, Wally Cassell as D’annunzia, the radioman, Hal Baylor as Stankowski, the engineer and Jimmy Lydon as Murray, the navigator.

The survival and rescue effort is delivered in almost documentary-like fashion. In brief snippets, we get little windows into the lives of the crew as they look back on what they’ve left behind. It’s never heavy-handed or too distracting, but is instead highly effective in letting us feel like we know the crew well. It goes a long way in simple fashion of getting us invested in their survival. A solid ensemble.

And then there’s the rescue efforts, featuring plenty of recognizable stars, character actors and future stars. ‘Island’ features an excellent ensemble all-around, starting with the rescue pilots, including Lloyd Nolan, James Arness, Andy Devine, Paul Fix, Allyn Joslyn, Cass Gidley and Louis Jean Heydt. Walter Abel leads the effort from base as the Army officer in command, an effortlessly effective part as he spells out what’s going on. As for some of the crew members, look for Harry Carey Jr., Fess Parker, Bob Steele, and Carl ‘Alfalfa’ Switzer.

I’ve seen this movie several times now, and I go along for the ride each and every time. The tension is beyond uncomfortable at times as the days pile up and supplies begin to dwindle, all the while the extreme, bitter cold wreaking havoc. SPOILER ALERT I absolutely love the ending too, one of the best, most emotional finales around. SPOILER ALERT. I can’t recommend this movie enough. Hidden away in a vault for years, ‘Island’ is must-see for fans of aviation, of John Wayne, of survival stories, and more simply, just of good stories. Definitely check this one out.

Island in the Sky (1953): ****/****