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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High Noon (1952)

high-noonAs a diehard fan of the western genre, I have one glaring omission that I not so proudly reveal today. Though I’ve seen bits and pieces of it over the years, I have never sat down and watched 1952’s High Noon from beginning to end. I know…crazy, right? Well, here we are. I can officially check it off the list. Put your pitchforks and torches away.

In the town of Hadleyville, Will Kane (Gary Cooper) has just married Amy Fowler Kane (Grace Kelly) and is retiring as the town marshal. He’s minutes away from leaving town on his honeymoon when three gunfighters ride through town. The telegraph office begins clicking away with a message too, notorious killer Frank Miller (Ian McDonald), has been paroled after receiving a life sentence, members of his gang waiting at the train station. The marshal who put him away who he swore revenge against? Will Kane. Now, Kane must decide what to do. With everyone telling him to hightail it out town before Miller arrives on the noon train, Kane decides to make his stand. Will Hadleyville support him though or will he be on his own?

From director Fred Zinnemann, ‘Noon’ is consistently ranked as one of the all-time great westerns. I never actively avoided it, just never actively sought it out either! I liked the idea of the movie more than the final product to cut to the chase. It’s good — really good — but not great for me. The story unfolds basically in real-time (clocking in at 85 minutes) from the moment Kane finds out Miller is coming to the time the killer and his gang descend on the town. Filmed in black and white, the stark western town feels very isolated to the world, removed from any civilization.

So that Gary Cooper, man, he’s always good. When I review his movies, I often find myself typing ‘one of his best roles.’ Playing Marshal Will Kane, Cooper earns the description again. Along with Sergeant York, this is probably his most famous, iconic role. Bigger picture? It’s one of the most iconic roles ever in the western genre. It doesn’t get any more straightforward than a man — a lone man — deciding to make a decision that he believes is right, potentially dangerous consequences be damned. Everything screams ‘RUN’ and everyone around him echoes the sentiment. He’s married, he’s retiring and he has a whole new (hopefully peaceful) life ahead of him. He should run for the hills. He doesn’t though. Cooper’s Kane makes his stand because he believes he’s right, even when the entire town abandons him.

Cooper was perfect at that Everyman role. He’s not a super marshal, not a gun-slinging gunfighter. He’s just a man. Few characters in a western resonate as much as him. Alan Ladd’s Shane, John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards, Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, William Holden’s Pike Bishop, maybe a few others I’m missing, but Kane is right in that western hierarchy.

This is Cooper’s movie, but the supporting cast is nothing to shake your head at. Kelly is the newlywed bride, a Quaker who sees a future with Kane. Katy Jurado is a scene-stealer as Helen Ramirez, a Mexican woman with power, albeit hidden power, who has a past with Cooper’s Kane. I would love to see what a movie not limited by 1950s standards would do with this character. Just the same, an excellent part. Also look for Lloyd Bridges as Harvey, the angry deputy, Thomas Mitchell as the Mayor, and Harry Morgan, Lon Chaney Jr., and Otto Kruger as some of the key townspeople. Miller’s gang includes Robert J. Wilke, Lee Van Cleef and Sheb Wooley. Also look for small parts for western regulars Jack Elam and John Doucette.

One of many claims to fame this western has is the famous criticism it received from….the Duke himself, John Wayne. Wayne objected to the townspeople’s response to Kane’s desperate plea for help. He even made Rio Bravo with director Howard Hawkes as a direct counter to ‘Noon.’ I tend to agree. Human nature kicks in, but it is a tad heavy-handed at times. Naturally no one wants to die going up against four hardened gunfighters, so Kane finds himself fighting a battle on his own. The negative is that it goes a little slow in getting to the showdown, a little repetitive. Minor complaint, but I did lose some interest along the way.

The tension is palpable though as the showdown looms. As noon approaches, the tension and anxiety kick in in crazy doses. ‘Noon’ has one of my favorite single shots in film history, a pan on a dolly that shows a nervous Kane, completely alone on a vacant street waiting to do what he believes is right. Cooper nails this scene, some nervous twitches, touching his hat, his gun as the train whistle blows in the background. No nonsense finale, just what we’ve been waiting for. Glad I finally caught up with this and officially checked it off my list.

High Noon (1952): *** 1/2 /****