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WWII in the Movies: Allied Powers
Remind Me


Saturday July, 20 2019 at 12:00 PM

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In one of the tersest, most exciting World War II dramas made during that war, Bataan (1943) was MGM's answer to Paramount's hugely successful Wake Island in 1942. Though fictionalized, this fact-based film tells the story of a small number of Americans who act as a rearguard against the Japanese army by preventing them from driving south on a bridge to Bataan. This small patrol of soldiers must contend with sniper fire, air raids, and an overwhelming number of Japanese soldiers. Gradually, the members of the unit are picked off one by one (not unlike John Ford's The Lost Patrol, 1934, with which this film shares narrative similarities) until the inevitable tragic ending looms ever closer.

On the surface, the premise sounds like a retelling of the Alamo battle, set in the South Pacific during WWII. Yet several attributes elevate this film above the average jingoistic propaganda piece that was so prevalent between 1942 and 1945, and the credit goes to director Tay Garnett, who went after the directorial assignment with determination and zeal (even taking a hefty cut in his established salary for the film).

Garnett was attracted by the strong script and the availability of some great veteran actors: George Murphy, as the steadfast lieutenant; Lloyd Nolan, the wise, empathetic corporal; Thomas Mitchell, a career soldier; and Robert Taylor (who discarded his pretty boy image with his strong portrayal) as the tough heroic sergeant. In fact, it is Taylor who claims the film's most unforgettable image as the lone survivor in the face of the enemy after all his men have been picked off. As the Japanese soldiers hurl forth, Taylor holds steady with his machine gun and keeps it firing until the end, mowing down as many enemy soldiers as he can before being taken out.

Beyond the first-rate action sequences, , one of Garnett's most impressive strengths as a director was his ability to instill confidence in the young actors who were still relatively unknown, like Desi Arnaz as young Felix Ramirez, the Hispanic soldier who was dying of malaria. Garnett allowed him to improvise his scene since Arnaz didn't like the original dialogue. The young actor chose to recite the "Mea Culpa" prayer in Latin, recalled from his Jesuit school days in Cuba, and played his deathbed scene to the hilt. It registered strongly with the audience and he won his first acting award, a "Best of the Month" citation from Photoplay magazine. Kenneth Spencer, as a quiet, honorable black soldier, is unforgettable in his groundbreaking role (his prayer over the grave of one of his comrades is particularly moving). And Robert Walker became a star in his debut as the young sailor who stays behind to help the doomed soldiers. It is his dying words that are often quoted from the film: "It don't matter where a man dies so long as he dies for freedom." A graduate from the Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, he was discovered doing commercial announcements on radio in Chicago by an MGM talent scout. Although 24, Garnett asked him to play the part of Purckett as an even younger man, making him more naive and vulnerable. "I want the audience heartbroken, and you'll steal the film kid". Garnett's words proved to be prophetic as a string of box-office hits soon followed and established Walker as a popular, boyish leading man throughout the decade.

Technically, Garnett did a commendable job overcoming the obvious studio-lot settings. A believable "jungle" atmosphere was achieved by including a carload of tropical foliage, and he created some eerily effective ground fog by dumping dry ice into tubs of water. Immediately, heavy white emanations formed on the surface of the water and, by using electric fans at low speed, he was able to blow the vapors into the desired areas. For the intense battle scenes, Garnett concentrated on some amazing close-ups filled with bloodshed and first-rate hand-to-hand combat fighting.

If there is a drawback, it's the dated anti-Japanese propaganda, which wasn't uncommon in Hollywood movies during the war, and Bataan is not the worst of its type. (Air Force, 1943, might top the list with its numerous racist slurs.) On the other hand, Bataan was the first feature to fully integrate soldiers of all walks of life for the cinema: Jewish, African-American, Hispanic, Filipino, and other nationalities - all of whom were treated equally and heroically. So controversial was this film at the time that Bataan actually had trouble being shown in parts of the Deep South in the 1940s. The film's inclusion of minorities in supporting roles was due to producer Dore Schary, a staunch liberal who made a conscious effort to break the color barrier in American war films by casting one of the soldiers as black. Schary never told the screenwriters which character was to be black and also advised them against writing any pedantic speeches dealing with race (historical note: the U.S. armed forces were not integrated until after World War II). For both political reasons and pure entertainment value, Bataan is an admirable war drama worth repeated viewings.

Producer: Irving Starr
Director: Tay Garnett
Screenplay: Robert D. Andrews
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Cinematography: Sidney Wagner
Film Editing: George White
Original Music: Bronislau Kaper
Principal Cast: Robert Taylor (Sgt. Bill Dane), George Murphy (Lt. Steve Bentley), Thomas Mitchell (Cpl. Jake Feingold), Lloyd Nolan (Cpl. Barney Todd), Robert Walker (Leonard Purckett), Lee Bowman (Capt. Henry Lassiter), Barry Nelson (F.X. Matowski), Desi Arnaz (Felix Ramirez), Kenneth Spencer (Wesley Eeps).
BW-115m. Closed captioning.

by Michael T. Toole



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