Sunday, June 15, 2014

CLASSIC or ANTIQUE: Back to Bataan (1945)

       Boy, did Hollywood like to make movies about Bataan!  “Back to Bataan” was the fourth movie set on the Philippines’ peninsula made during the war.  Bataan” (1943), “So Proudly We Hail” (1944), and “They Were Expendable” (1945) were the other three.  “Back to Bataan” was directed by Edward Dmytryk (“The Caine Mutiny”) and written by Ben Barzman.  Both were communist sympathizers which made their pairing with the famously conservative John Wayne an interesting part of the production.  They appear to have gotten along well which is a testament to Wayne.  However, when Wayne insisted on doing his own stunts, the pair came up with doozies to get him to relent (including the submerging in the cold water with reeds to breathe through scene).  Wayne was game and did not use a double in the film.  That’s because he was John F’in Wayne. 

                The movie was heartily endorsed by the Office of War Information and was assisted by the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.  Since the film was shot during the liberation of the Philippines, Barzman did rewrites and add-ons to reflect changing situations.  For instance, reference to the Raid on Cabanatuan was added in to good effect.

                In fact, that reference occurs at the beginning of the film.  There is a spicy reenactment of the raid on the prison camp.  The Americans bust through the gate, mow down the Japanese guards coming out of their huts, and rescue the prisoners.  Then a guerrilla unit led by Capt. Bonifacio (Anthony Quinn) ambushes and slaughters pursuing Japanese soldiers.  A narrator introduces us to some of the actual survivors as they march into American lines.  Very nice touch, although the raid has little to do with the rest of the movie.  From here we flashback to 1942 because “this is the story of the resistance”.

Anthony Quinn and his co-star
                Wayne plays Col. Madden who leads a unit of Philippine Scouts that includes Bonifacio.  Bonifacio is morose because his girl-friend Dalisay (Fely Franquilli) is “Manila Rose” and is broadcasting propaganda for the Japanese.  Things are not going well in Bataan and Madden’s force is attacked by the Japanese in a scene reminiscent of a WWI trench warfare scene except for fox-holes instead of trenches.  Madden reports to Corregidor where he shares Gen. Wainwright’s last cigarette (a sure sign the end is near).  Madden is ordered to take over guerrilla operations now that the fall is inevitable. His unit consists of the survivors of his old unit plus recruits.  The only other American is an ex-hobo (I kid you not) named Bindle (as in stick) played by Paul Fix.   

Where did you learn to make rat stew, Bindle?
                A slimy Gen. Homma tells the Filipino’s that they are like Japan’s nieces and nephews, but they will not be coddled.  The Filipinos in this move don’t cotton to this.  At a rural school, the principal and the school marm Mrs. Barnes (the perfectly cast Beulah Bondi) teach a mixture of Filipino nationalism (there is a positive reference to the Philippine Insurrection against American occupation) and respect for America.  When the Japanese arrive and order the principal to lower the American flag, he prefers to die.  Barnes joins Madden’s force and brings mascot-worthy Maximo.

                Madden witnesses the Bataan Death March (don’t forget who we are fighting, audience) and sees the Japanese shoot and bayonet stragglers.  They rescue Bonifacio and since he is the grandson of a Filipino hero from the insurrection against Spain, he’ll come in handy as an inspirational figure (plus we need that romantic subplot).  Madden sends him to Manila to deliver a message to an agent.  Surprise, it’s Dalisay!  She’s actually working for the good guys.  Strangely, Bonifacio does not ask her WTF. 

                Ambushes montage.  Sappy speeches.  Big set piece.  The Japanese host an “independence” ceremony at the village.  Madden’s crew attacks and puts an end to that farce.  Dalisay is rescued and she and Barnes join the unit.  Unfortunately, Maximo is captured and tortured.  He agrees to lead the Japanese to the rebel lair, but causes the truck to plunge into a ravine.  Even kids can be heroes.  Or martyrs.

Maximo realizes that the American overlords
were not such a-holes after all
                Time passes via a montage of humping through the boonies. Dalisay and Mrs. Barnes are still with them.  Madden goes off to Australia ala MacArthur and returns with a mission to block Japanese reinforcements from reaching the invasion beaches.  This calls for the capture of a Japanese-held village.  They hide in a rice paddy using reeds to breathe in a scene that strains credulity, but was fun for Dmytryk and Barzman to film.  The garrison is taken out with extreme prejudice including Bindle pulling a grenade pin with his teeth.  Footage of the landings follows.  [Spoiler alert: see below for conclusion]

                “Back to Bataan” is “based on actual incidents and people”, but don’t take that too seriously.  The raid on Cabanatuan is handled well, but “The Great Raid” is the go-to movie for that.  Still that is a commendatory, if out of place, opening to the film.  Of the “people”, I would assume only Madden is anything but loosely based on a real person.  He personifies Col. George Clarke who commanded the 57th Infantry Regiment of the Philippine Scouts during the Battle of Bataan.  Clarke served as the technical advisor for the film.  The anti-Spanish Bonifacio, for instance, did not have a grandson.  Dalisay, Barnes, Bindle, and Maximo are Hollywood stock characters.  The movie deserves some credit for depicting guerrilla warfare, but sugar-coats its brutal nature.  There are a lot of dead Japanese in this movie, but the Filipinos get off easy which certainly was not realistic.  99% of the deaths in the movie are Japanese. 

John Wayne walks
on water
                The movie is a standard 1940s WWII actioner.  It is also a typical Wayne war movie.  He is essentially playing himself and does it well.  The direction stands out given that Dmytryk was upper tier and thus the cinematography is a cut above most of its ilk.  The music by Max Steiner (who else?) is what you would expect with the added trivia that he used large chunks of his “King Kong” score.  The plot avoids many of the WWII movie clichés (see my post on WWII movie cliches).  There is a specific mission, but it does not consume the movie.  The unit is not heterogeneous.  They are all generic Filipinos except Madden and Bindle.  There is no observer, no forced leadership, no conflict within the unit, and no redemption arc.

                The acting is pretty good.  Wayne and Quinn make a charismatic pair.  They could play he-men in their sleep (or drunk).  Bondi comes off well as the feisty teacher, but Franquelli is weak and the romantic subplot feels forced (which, of course, it was).  The dialogue does not help.  It tends to be trite and too sincere.  The Japanese are hissable villains of the oriental variety which means that unlike their German counterparts in movies of this era, they are depicted as idiots.

the cameramen were forbidden to go lower
because a full body shot of Beulah would have inflamed men
                What sets the movie apart is the blend of Philippine nationalism and American patriotism.  The school principal exemplifies this duality.  The movie must have been popular in the Philippines as well as the U.S.  It is the only movie I can recall where an American and a Filipino would high five after seeing it.  It has a large Filipino cast that does well.  Remarkably it includes lines that imply the U.S forced itself on the Philippines after the Spanish-American War and that the insurrectionists were right to resist.  Madden even makes a respectful reference to their use of bolos.  By 1945 it would have been apparent that the Filipinos had done their share and earned their independence.  It’s nice that Hollywood recognized that.

                The conclusion is weak.  Having taken the village, Madden now has to hold it so Japanese reinforcements cannot reach the invasion beach.  Things look bleak as a Japanese tank (played by a Sherman) approaches menacingly, but Americans arrive in the nick of time.  More actual Cabanatuan survivors marching.  The end.

this image was on Google Images for "Back to Bataan" -
I assume it was the first movie to have "The End"
                Classic or antique?  Classic.  The pro-Filipino plot makes it unique and Wayne is solid, of course.

Grade =  C+    
the trailer
the full movie


  1. I have not seen this movie in a while but it did not make a big impression on me. I prefer Dmytryk's films after he served time, rather than the movies he made before the whole Hollywood Ten fiasco. However,you ate totally right that it is worth seeing for the principal's powerful, inspirational speech.

  2. Interesting comments about Dmytryk. Thanks.


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