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Review: "Bataan" depict heroic sacrifice of Luzon's defenders during WWII

Robert Taylor was the star named in this 1943 theater marquee
Robert Taylor was the star named in this 1943 theater marquee



“Bataan,” released by Metro Goldwyn Mayer in 1943, is one of several wartime films (including “They Were Expendable,” “Back to Bataan” and “So Proudly We Hail!’) which depict the 1941-1942 struggle to defend the Philippine Islands from the invading Japanese army. Written by Robert Hardy Andrews and directed by Tay Gannett, “Bataan” was one of the many movies made during World War II to show people back home some of the horrors being endured by America’s fighting men in the war fronts.

“Bataan” deliberately portrays one of the most traumatizing defeats the United States and her Filipino allies suffered in order to raise support for the war effort. Its less-than-subtle message: “If those heroic men and women who gave their lives on Bataan defending our country’s freedom and to prevent the Philippines from becoming a Japanese colony, then it’s up to YOU to work harder to build the planes, tanks, ships, and tools for Gen. MacArthur and our fighting men to return to Bataan!”

Starring Robert Taylor, George Murphy, Thomas Mitchell, Desi Arnaz, Thomas Mitchell and Lloyd Nolan, “Bataan” takes place in a small corner of the eponymous peninsula designated by Gen, MacArthur as the Allies’ defensive line on the island of Luzon. Covered in thick tropical jungles and made almost impregnable by hilly terrain, Bataan seems perfectly suited for a defending force to hold out until help arrives via Hawaii and the U.S. Navy.

Andrews’ original screenplay focuses on events which took place after MacArthur’s December 1941 retreat from Manila following Japan’s lightning strikes on Pearl Harbor, Wake, Guam and other U.S. outposts in the Pacific. Believing that help will arrive from the U.S. within weeks, the American-Filipino forces dig in to repel the invaders.

But the disastrous lack of readiness by the Americans on December 8, 1941 (the Philippines lie west of the International Dateline and so are a day ahead of Hawaii time) allowed Japan to obliterate most of MacArthur’s bomber and fighter force, stripping his command of air support. Badly-needed supplies – food, drinking water, medicines, and ammunition – are in short supply behind the American lines.

As MacArthur’s command makes a tortuous fighting retreat south, it’s decided that a strategically-important bridge spanning a high ravine will be destroyed as soon as the last Army unit passes over. To hold it open for stragglers and civilian refugees until its destruction, an ad-hoc unit of 13 American and Filipino soldiers is tasked with the dual mission.

Although West Point grad Capt. Henry Lassiter (Lee Bowman) is nominally in command, leadership of this racially-integrated squad (Desi Arnaz plays a Mexican-American California National Guardsman, while Kenneth Lee Spencer portrays a black explosives expert from the Corps of Engineers) falls to Sgt. Bill Dane (Taylor).

Because the Japanese attack on the Philippines has also destroyed various Navy bases and warships stationed near Manila, this baker’s dozen of defenders also includes a somewhat naïve Navy band player (Robert Walker) and a grounded fighter pilot (Murphy) who endeavors to repair his damaged plane and take the war to the Japanese.

As soon as the last retreating U.S.-Filipino forces cross the bridge, the defenders destroy it before the advancing Japanese can capture it. The enemy unleashes artillery and small-arms fire on the small unit’s perimeter, killing or wounding its members one by one.

Like the Marines on Wake Island, Sgt. Dane and his crew realize their mission is not to win but to buy time for the rest of Bataan’s defenders to retreat to the next line of defenses. With no relief force in sight and their supplies running out, the squad digs in, determined to take down as many Japanese as they can.

My Take: Made in 1943, “Bataan” is a good example of how early Allied defeats could be dramatized for propaganda purposes.

Like Paramount Pictures’ “Wake Island” (1942), MGM’s “Bataan” was conceived to highlight the sacrifices made by America’s fighting forces during the dark days of the Pacific War. Though set in locations separated by at least 1,000 miles of ocean, both films depict “Remember the Alamo” style engagements pitting a handful of Allied defenders against a numerically and well-supported enemy force.

Both films also stay true to history and end with a Japanese victory, but show the surviving American protagonists exhibiting unremitting defiance against insurmountable odds.

Savvy film buffs will notice at least two outstanding features in “Bataan.” First, it is a rare made-during-World War II feature which depicts a “Negro” as part of a racially-integrated combat unit. This surprising detail might be courtesy of Dore Schary’s fondness for inserting liberal ideas into movies he produced. Kenneth Spencer’s Wesley Epps is certainly a rarity for his time; he’s a professionally trained explosives expert at a time when most blacks in war movies were relegated to such roles as mess boys or non-combat personal. In an era when Jim Crow reigned supreme, MGM was prohibited from screening Bataan in the segregated South.

Second, “Bataan” not only borrows thematic material from two versions of a World War I-themed movie, “The Lost Patrol”; it also uses some footage from John Ford’s 1934 remake of the original 1929 silent film directed by Walter Summers.

Whether Schary (who has no credit but was “Bataan’s” executive producer) did this for financial or aesthetic reasons is a mystery, but the films are so similar in tone and story that the borrowed material actually fits well.

DVD Specifications

  • Format: Black & White, Dolby, Widescreen, NTSC
  • Language: English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono), French (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono)
  • Subtitles: English, French
  • Region: Region 1
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated: NR (Not Rated)
  • Studio: MGM
  • DVD Release Date: May 18, 1999
  • Run Time: 114 minutes
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