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
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 <---trailer (1945): *** 1/2 /****