Judge George Hatch would like to send this film Back to Bataan or to war film archives were it can be put to sleep.
"Outnumbered—but not outfought!"—movie tagline
Every string is pulled and every button pushed but for some reason I found myself underwhelmed by this tedious and uninspiring propaganda piece. Poke me in the eye with a flagpole because, at a brisk 95 minutes, Back to Bataan still plays like an extended Movie-Tone Newsreel complete with pompous narration and World War II screen rolls updating American theater audiences on progress overseas in the Philippines. The film is bracketed with pseudo-documentary footage of real surviving soldiers marching in front of the camera with their names, ranks, and home states dog-tagged under their close-ups. The local schoolmarm, Miss Barnes, played by Beulah Bondi with all the histrionics of a silent film actress, provides an obligatory crash course in Filipino history.
Facts of the Case
Back to Bataan recounts the resistance movement of the Filipino people "that saved thousands of American lives," and their own battle to keep from being absorbed into The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere—a fancy way of saying "slaves of the Japanese Empire." When MacArthur is ordered to Australia, Col. Joseph Madden (John Wayne) and Capt. Andres Bonifacio (Anthony Quinn) are recruited to organize a vital guerilla movement to prevent Gen. Homma from conquering Bataan. Their initial assignment is to blow up a Japanese gasoline dump but they end up defending the small town of Balintawak, "The birthplace of Filipino Freedom!"
Between these two events is an hour's worth of listless and repetitious battle sequences, with Madden and his men dodging snipers or setting up ambushes. These scenes are methodically intercut with the inevitable reminiscences of home—though we are spared the hokey harmonica solo, a near requisite for war and prison films.
A few of the early action scenes are effectively choreographed, especially when Madden gets strafed into a foxhole, his body then blown out spinning by a hand grenade. The explosions quickly become routine as do the shoot-and-duck sniper missions. When a truckload of Japanese soldier-manikins goes over a cliff, it's almost laughable. John Wayne (Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Alamo), as always, plays himself—whether being big brother to little Maximo, a boy who represents the future of the Philippines, or the tough/tender Colonel who angrily chews out another officer for a military blunder, offhandedly adding, "By the way, soldier, tomorrow I'm going to recommend you for the DSC."
Two-time Oscar winner Anthony Quinn (Viva Zapata!, Lust for Life) plays Capt. Andres Bonifacio, grandson of a revolutionary Filipino icon, who will do anything for the sake of his homeland. The opening narration advises us that these are all real people. However, I question the sub-plot about Bonifacio's girlfriend, Dolici Delgado (Fely Franquelli, Cry, "Havoc") who has apparently become Manila Radio's version of Tokyo Rose but turns out to be more Mata Hari. Both actors are excellent. I admit to being intrigued more by this Delgado character than whether or not such a relationship actually existed. (A quick web-search of the name brought up only links to this DVD.) As mentioned, Beulah Bondi (The Snake Pit) is overwrought to her last scenes when bruised and battle-beaten Maximo says, "I'm sorry I didn't learn how to spell 'liberty,' Teacher," and she sobs, "Dear God! Who ever learned it so well?" Noir-heads, watch for Lawrence Tierney (Reservoir Dogs, The Devil Thumbs a Ride) as the no-nonsense, sympathetic Lt. Cmdr. Waite.
Warner's non-anamorphic transfer is adequate, but the occasional high-contrast whites out background details. It's too bad because the cinematography is by Nicholas Musuraca, veteran of over 150 films whose eye for atmosphere is evident in such classics as Cat People, The Seventh Victim, and Out of the Past (which, by the way, is finally coming to DVD). It's almost no surprise that Roy Webb wrote the scores for many of these films. He does the same for Back to Bataan, but some "uncredited stock music" by Max Steiner is used, most likely in the pounding, patriotic orchestral swells that open the film and the last tank battle. Webb's main score is much subtler and all the more effective—the most delicate touch in an otherwise heavy-handed movie.
Perhaps the film's lack of energy and inspiration was the fault of its director, Edward Dmytryk. Two years earlier, he helmed Tender Comrade, based on an original screenplay by Dalton Trumbo, about a group of women who decide to live communally while their husbands are overseas at war. Interestingly enough, both men would soon find themselves HUAC-ed and blacklisted during Senator Joe McCarthy's ruthless witch-hunt, with Tender Comrade being cited as Communist propaganda. Dmytryk was a Leftist who had indeed been a member of the Communist Party during WW II, if only for a short time. As one of the "Hollywood Ten," he refused to cooperate with the investigation and was imprisoned. After serving brief jail time, he decided to make a statement and "name names." Much like Elia Kazan, his career was only slightly sidelined, yet both men were considered social outcasts by most of Hollywood. Dmytryk directed some of the most intriguing films of the 1950s and early 1960s, slipping easily across genres with The Young Lions, Walk on the Wild Side and the knockout western, Warlock. Whether or not he felt any real commitment to Back to Bataan is hard to judge. Having just completed the twisty noir classic Murder, My Sweet, this barely routine script with predictably cardboard characters must have been a real letdown.
The film's one genuine surprise—and revelation—came in the last chapter, "Roll Call of the Valiant." As the film ends, the previously cited marching soldiers are shifted to the right for a split-screen effect so the key heroes can walk toward the camera on the left. Being the most important, Wayne's Col. Madden is preceded, of course, by Quinn's Bonifacio. Now you would think this sequence would start with Dolici Dalgado, who risked her life to infiltrate the Japanese high command, or Miss Barnes the determined schoolteacher. Yet, the first hero to emerge is a black soldier—with sergeant's stripes!—who isn't even in the film. Someone obviously wanted American audiences to know that black men were also in the U.S. military, earning rank and defending American soil. Was he one of the dozen or so real soldier-survivors who couldn't/shouldn't be included in the bracketed marches? In retrospect, his near-subliminal appearance is the most startling and thought-provoking aspect of this 1945 film, and a ballsy move worthy of Sam Fuller.
Though still packaging in snap cases, it looks like Warner is using some of the terrific original poster art and lobby card graphics for their DVD war releases. It's a shame that Back to Bataan doesn't quite live up to the action suggested by its cover.
It may be propaganda, but my interest in Back to Bataan flagged after the first half-hour.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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