War Movie Mondays: ‘Bataan’

This week’s pick salutes the first American combatants of World War II who began fighting the Japanese in the Philippines following the clandestine attack on American forces at Pearl Harbor. Bataan (1943) was directed by Tay Garnett and stars Robert Taylor (Sgt. Bill Dane, 31st Infantry Div.),Thomas Mitchell (Cpl. Jake Feingold), George Murphy (Lt. Steve Bentley), Lloyd Nolan (Cpl. Barney Todd), Lee Bowman (Capt. Henry Lassiter), Robert Walker (Musician 2nd Class Leonard Pruckett), Desi Arnaz (Pvt. Felix Ramirez), Barry Nelson (Pvt. F.X. Matowski), Phillip Terry (Pvt. Matthew Hardy), Roque Espiritu (Cpl. Juan Katigbak), Kenneth Lee Spencer (Pvt. Wesley Epps), Alex Havier (Pvt. Yankee Salazar), and Tom Dugan (Pvt. Sam Malloy).

The history surrounding the battle for Bataan and Corregidor is one of history’s greatest bookmarks. The Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, left the United States crippled and unable to protect its vital interests throughout the Pacific theater.

The Philippine Islands were one of the United States’ greatest territories which were coveted by the Japanese who wanted to capture it for symbolic purposes. Just three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese launched a coordinated offensive against the northern island of Luzon.

A few days later they began invading from the east and hoped to capture the capital of Manila and trap the American and Filipino forces now in retreat. To save the civilian population from total annihilation, General Douglas MacArthur, U.S. military governor of the Philippines, declared it an open city. Despite regard for it’s civilian populace, the Japanese bombed the city.

December 1941-April 9th, 1942 were four of the most grueling months for MacArthur’s forces who were trying to prevent the Japanese from capturing the islands, and were holding on for reinforcements which hoped were coming to their aid. The end result was the infamous sixty five mile long Bataan Death March which claimed thousands of American and Filipino troops who were brutally executed by their Japanese captors. It is truly one of history’s darkest moments.

The film centers around a squad of thirteen hastily formed volunteers who follow the American and Filipino withdrawal from the capital of Manila and retreat into the mountainous region of the Bataan peninsula. Sgt. Bill Dane (Taylor) and his ragtag squad hope to delay the advancing Japanese until help arrives. Their mission is to guard a bridge which spans a ravine over the Bataan peninsula. Much like morale boosters of the time, the film is full of usual Army stereotypes that Hollywood was guilty of, but the characters are real people which the audience cares about and admires.

The squad consists of characters like Pvt. Ramirez (Arnaz), a Mexican-American from California who latches on to home by bringing along his radio which plays American Jazz. A demolitions expert, Pvt. Wesley Epps (Spencer). A Conscientious objector in the U.S. Army Medical Corp, Pvt. Matthew Hardy (Terry). Pvt. Matowski (Nelson) is an engineer who is called upon to help Epps blow the bridge. Pvt. Salazar is a Philippine Scout who is relied upon due to his knowledge of the terrain. Cpl. Feingold (Mitchell) is a member of the Chemical Corp who lost his unit and is recruited to help hold the bridge.

Robert Walker’s character of Seaman, 2nd Class Leonard Pruckett is the most out of place among all of them. He came ashore after falling overboard from his ship and wound up in the infantry. He is unaccustomed to army life and is much like a fish out of water. He is young, idealistic, and held down a series of jobs before joining the U.S. Navy. His one true desire is to ‘shoot himself a Jap’ before returning home to Texas.

The character of Cpl. Barney Todd (Nolan) is an interesting one. When Dane asks for a role call, he asks Todd if they have ever met before and Todd says that he would have remembered if they had ever met. Dane can’t put his finger on it, but Todd reminds him of a prisoner who was accused of murder and escaped from his custody several years earlier. Dane tells the story to Todd and told him that this character cost him his stripes, and got him sent to the Philippines as a punishment. Dane vows that if he ever finds this man, he’ll deal with him for almost ruining his career in the Army.

The film is that of a scenario where everyone eventually gets bumped off by the enemy, who come in wave after wave of attacks, and use their extensive knowledge of jungle warfare to deceive our heroes. The classic “last man standing” situation occurs at the end where the main character over comes tremendous odds and goes out in a blaze of glory, signaling to the audience that their valiant struggle shall never be forgotten.

My favorite part of the film comes when many of the men are fatigued, and are now at their breaking point. A machine gun position spots that the jungle is moving in on them, but it is in fact dozens of Japanese soldiers in gili suits, disguising themselves against the American defenders. It is a scene which is effectively creepy and shows how masterful the Japanese were at jungle warfare. My second favorite scene is the end, where our hero digs his own grave along side his comrades and shows no fear against overwhelming odds. The end close-up scene was used as an homage in the HBO mini series The Pacific, where U.S. Marine Corp Sgt. John Basilone fires his M-1917 Browning Machine Gun against Japanese attackers on Guadalcanal.

The film was a huge hit for MGM that year, but due to the nature of an integrated fighting force, the film was banned from showings in the American South. Elsewhere, American audiences were sympathetic to the plight of the Filipino people who eventually were liberated by General MacArthur’s forces who returned two years later to oust the Japanese invaders. In 1947 the United States granted independence to the Philippines as a sovereign nation.

Bataan is available on DVD through Warner Bros. Home Video and can be rented through Netflix.

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