Friday, April 23, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Back to Bataan" (1945)

I've enjoyed writing this column for many reasons, but one has been discovering Golden Age war films that are much more nuanced and anti-war than I would have given credit for.

"Back to Bataan" is not one of them.

This creaky, stolid picture stars John Wayne as Col. Joseph Madden, an Army officer tasked with leading the insurgency in the Philippine Islands after General MacArthur was forced to withdraw, leaving tens of thousands of American soldiers in captivity at the cruel hands of the Japanese and their atrocities -- most famously, the Bataan Death March.

The march itself is briefly depicted in the film, but includes the movie's most curious moment. Andres Bonifacio, a captain and grandson of the Philippine's greatest hero, is among the prisoners. The Japanese soldiers are shooting or bayoneting any prisoner who falls or attempts to escape.

Bonifacio stumbles off the trail but passes out before he can reach safety. A Japanese soldier hovers him, preparing to stab him through, but then intentionally thrusts his bayonet harmlessly into the ground between Bonifacio's legs, looking around to see if anyone saw him. The man is then pulled into the jungle by the insurgents.

Now, why in the world would a Japanese soldiers spare this man? Did he know about Bonifacio's ancestry, and the ability of his surname to rally the people? Or was it simply the rare example of kindness amidst the atrocities? Either way, it needed to be explained.

Bonifacio is played by Anthony Quinn, the Irish/Mexican actor whose swarthy good looks allowed him to portray virtually every ethnicity in the movies, from Arab to Italian to Greek to Filipino.

Wayne's doing his usual big-hero shtick, leading other men through the sheer force of his personality -- and the explicit threat that he'll personally beat them senseless if they fail to obey.

The Japanese are portrayed in the usual way of World War II propaganda -- smiling while killing innocents, big glasses, etc. I know a war was one, but it's still sickening to watch this vile stuff so many years later. It makes you wonder: In German or Japanese war films of the era, are Americans depicted as big, gangly evildoers? Do they wear cowboy hats as they gun down innocent Germans? I'd love to know.

The other interesting thing about "Back to Bataan" is the explicitly heroic light in with the Filipinos are depicted. They are continually praised as brave, loyal and fiercely independent. One character, a young boy named Maximo who continually helps Madden and his troops, is beaten by the Japanese into revealing their location, but he sacrifices himself by steering the troop carrier into a ravine.

In his dying breath, Maximo apologies to his stodgy old white schoolteacher (Beulah Bondi) for misspelling "liberty" with a "u." She clutches his body, crying out that even if he couldn't spell it, no one better understood the meaning of the word.

It's a seriously corny moment in an underwhelming war picture.

1.5 stars out of four

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