Cast & Crew
As civilians and American and Filipino forces are being driven out of Manila by the invading Japanese, Sgt. Bill Dane and Corp. Jake Feingold of the U.S. infantry are assigned to assist cavalry captain Henry Lassiter in destroying a bridge along the Bataan penisula. The bridge spans a mountainous jungle ravine, and Lassiter's unit is stationed on one side, abutting a cliff. In addition to Dane and Feingold, Lassiter's ragtag unit consists of eleven disenfranchised men: pilot Lieut. Steve Bentley and his disabled plane; Corp. Barney Todd of the signal battalion; young, naïve Leonard Purckett, until recently a musician in the Navy; Pvt. Felix Ramirez of the tank corps, a former member of the California National Guard; Matthew Hardy of the medical battalion; Corp. Juan Katigbak of the Philippine Army Air Force; engineer Pvt. Francis Xavier Matowski; demolitions expert Pvt. Wesley Eeps, a black man; former boxer Pvt. Yankee Salazar of the Philippine Scouts; and Sam Malloy, a cook from the motor transport crew. Dane, a no-nonsense career soldier, explains to the men that they are expected to destroy the bridge as many times as the Japanese rebuild it, in order to buy time for General Douglas MacArthur's troops to the south.
Later, in private, Dane questions Todd about his past, noting that Todd resembles a soldier he once knew named Danny Burns. Dane states that, years before, Burns was arrested for killing a man in a gambling dispute and when Dane, then an M.P., was assigned to guard him, took advantage of his trust and escaped. The recalcitrant Todd dismisses Dane's insinuations and advises him to "watch his back." Soon after, the men blow up the bridge, but their victory celebration is cut short when Capt. Lassiter is killed by a sniper. Although Dane discourages them from giving Lassiter a funeral, the men insist on a proper burial, and Eeps, an aspiring preacher, delivers a brief eulogy. Later, after Dane gives each man their assignment, which includes continuous manning of the unit's machine guns, he asks for a volunteer to climb a tree and scan for the enemy. Matowski volunteers and no sooner does he reach the top of the tree, than he is shot down and killed. With two men dead, Dane sends Felix and the multi-skilled Purckett to help Bentley repair his nearby plane. Dane and Todd then toss grenades at the bridge, which the Japanese have already begun to rebuild, and during their attack, Dane notices that Todd throws left-handed, just like Burns did.
After Dane and Todd narrowly escape the Japanese's return fire, Salazar asks permission to search for more artillery. Dane denies his request, but Salazar sneaks off on his own, only to be found stabbed to death a short time later. At the same time, the jazz-loving Felix comes down with malaria and is ordered to bed. The Japanese then launch an aerial attack on the camp, and while Eeps and Malloy succeed in downing some planes, Malloy is killed. Afterward, through the jungle fog, the men see the slain, tortured body of Katigbak, who earlier had gone to work on the plane's carburetor, dangling by a rope from a tree. The next day, Felix, delirious with malarial fever, recites a Latin prayer in front of Hardy and Dane, then dies. Aware that their time is limited, Bentley announces he will attempt a takeoff that night and suggests that they all leave together. Dane refuses to give up the mission, but orders the feverish Hardy, a conscientious objector who gave the last dose of quinine to Felix, to accompany Bentley. When Todd threatens to leave with Bentley, Dane assures him that he will be shot if he deserts.
That night, under heavy cover from Feingold, Todd, Purckett and Eeps, Dane helps Bentley to start the plane. Although Bentley's repair job proves successful, he is wounded by the Japanese before getting off the ground. Hardy stumbles back to camp and tells Dane that Bentley wants to load two boxes of dynamite on his plane. The dying Bentley then deliberately crashes his plane into the bridge, causing a huge explosion. Soon after, a delirious Hardy, feeling guilty about Bentley's sacrifice, runs madly into the jungle hurling a grenade, and is shot down. Later, at his machine gun, Purckett notices that the "foliage" is moving and alerts Kane. Dane waits until the camouflaged Japanese are close to their guns, then signals his men to begin firing. Although many Japanese are slain in the brutal, close attack, Eeps and Feingold are also killed. After narrowly escaping death, Purckett, whose only wish was to "kill a Jap," realizes his arm has been wounded, and Todd bandages the injury. At Dane's insistence, Todd then offers to help Purckett write an optimistic letter to his mother. Immediately after finishing, however, Purckett is killed by a sniper, and Dane deduces that the killer must be hiding among some Japanese corpses.
While Dane and Todd inspect the bodies, Todd is shot in the back by the sniper. Dane finishes off the sniper, then takes Todd back to camp. Before dying, Todd admits that he is, in fact, Burns, but offers no apology to Dane, who earlier had offered to forget the past. Now alone, an exhausted Dane digs his own grave, then dozes off while waiting at his machine gun for the enemy. Suddenly realizing that the Japanese have surrounded him, Dane startles awake and, from his grave, opens fire on the swarming enemy, doing his duty to the deadly end.
J. Alex Havier
Robert D. Andrews
L. S. Chappelear
Nat W. Finston
W. C. Handy
Edwin B. Willis
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
The working titles of this film were Back to Bataan, Bataan Patrol and Bataan's Last Stand. The film's opening credits include the following written dedication: "When Japan struck, our desperate need was time-time to marshal our new armies. Ninety-six priceless days were bought for us-with their lives-by the defenders of Bataan, the Philippine army which formed the bulk of MacArthur's infantry fighting shoulder to shoulder with Americans. To those immortal dead, who heroically stayed the wave of barbaric conquest, this picture is reverently dedicated." The following written statement appears at the end of the picture: "So fought the heroes of Bataan. Their sacrifice made possible our victories in the Coral and Bismarck Seas, at Midway, on New Guinea and Guadalcanal. Their spirit will lead us back to Bataan!" According to a Hollywood Reporter news item, Bataan was to include a disclaimer that read: "Although the characters depicted in this photoplay are fictitious, its events are adapted without exaggeration from known fact." Only the standard disclaimer was used in the completed film, however.
As depicted in the film, for three months after being driven out of Manila, American and Filipino forces defended the mountainous Bataan penisula against Japanese attack. Along with thousands of refugees, the soldiers were crowded into a ten-mile square area and many suffered from beriberi and other deficiency diseases. On April 9, 1942, General Edward King, who took over command after General Douglas MacArthur was sent to Australia, surrended Bataan to the Japanese. The prisoners were subsequently forced to march to captivity, and the long trek became known as the Bataan Death March after 25,000 soldiers and civilians died along the way from mistreatment and starvation. With no supplies coming in, Lt. Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright surrendered nearby Corregidor Island on May 6, 1942, and 10,000 troops, medical personnel and civilians were taken prisoner. Manila, Bataan and Corregidor were not liberated from the Japanese until early 1945.
Hollywood Reporter news items and M-G-M publicity items add the following information about the production: Hollywood Reporter announced in April 1942 that M-G-M had hired Bill Lyons and Eddie Read to write the film's screenplay. The contribution of these writers, if any, to the finished film has not been determined. In July 1942, in an apparent attempt to stave off any copyright infringement suits, M-G-M paid RKO $6,500 for the right to use any part of RKO's 1934 war film The Lost Patrol (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40; F3.2580). In that picture, which was directed by John Ford, Victor McLaglen heads a unit of British soldiers who become lost in the North African desert and are killed one-by-one by unseen Arab snipers. [In his autobiography, M-G-M executive producer Dore Schary referred to Bataan as a "remake" of the Ford film.] Walter Pidgeon was announced as the star of Bataan in October 1942 and was to play "Sgt. Bill Dever," a "new model sergeant" in the "new model United States Army." At that time, the story featured nineteen principals, including a Native American character, each representing separate arms of the service. In mid-November 1942, Robert Young was announced as George Murphy's co-star, and on the first day of shooting, Richard Whorf was announced in the role of "Barney Todd" and Richard Carlson in the role of "Matthew Hardy." William Gargan was to play an Army truck driver. Although Robert Walker, a former radio star, did not make his screen debut in the film, as some reviews contend, "Leonard Purckett" marked his first significant role. The Variety review noted that Walker won the part after a previous "Hollywood brushoff" and predicted that he would prove "one of the top 'finds' of the year." Other reviewers praised Walker's performance as well, and the actor went on to star in M-G-M's 1944 comedic military film See Here, Private Hargroves, after appearing in a smaller part in Madame Curie (see below entries).
Bataan also marked the first dramatic screen role for Desi Arnaz, and won him much praise. In his autobiography, Arnaz claimed that he suggested that his character utter the same Latin confessional prayer, Mea Culpa, he had learned as a boy in Cuba as part of his death scene. (The ethnicity of Arnaz' character is not clearly established in the film, though he describes himself as a Californian.) Richard Derr and Leigh Sterling are listed as cast members in Hollywood Reporter news items, but their participation in the final film has not been confirmed. Hollywood Reporter lists Mary Elliott as a nurse, "the only female in the film," but she was not seen in the viewed print. In addition, CBCS lists Lynne Carver and Dorothy Morris as "nurses," but they were not seen in the viewed print. According to Hollywood Reporter, Tommy Dorsey and his orchestra are heard offscreen during a scene in which "Felix Ramirez" listens to a radio broadcast of a jazz number. Technical advisor Lewis C. Chappealear, Jr., was a member of the 45th Infantry, Philippine Scouts, according to Hollywood Reporter.
Many film historians consider Bataan a seminal World War II combat film. According to modern sources, M-G-M and the OWI planned the film together, and the OWI enthusiastically endorsed the script, particularly its depiction of "Lassiter's" unit as "democratic" in nature. The OWI approved the inclusion of the African American soldier, but disapproved of the condescending way in which the Filipino soldiers were first drawn. Although not the first film to depict gritty World War II combat, real or fictional, Bataan was distinctive in that virtually all of its action takes place on the battlefield. It was also the first World War II picture to include a pointedly multi-ethnic, multi-racial cast of characters, a device that became relatively common in later World War II films. Reviewers commented on the film's graphic, realistic depiction of war. Bosley Crowther wrote about the film: "This time, at least, a studio hasn't purposely 'prettified' facts. This time it has made a picture about war in true and ugly detail....There is sickening filth and bloodshed in it." The Variety reviewer stated that "Bataan graphically generates public hate of the Japs, and is the first picture of that kind in the high budget class since release of Wake Island" .
The role of "Pvt. Wesley Eeps" was reportedly inspired by Pvt. Robert H. Brooks, the first American soldier killed in the Philippines, and the man for whom the parade grounds at Fort Knox were renamed. (It has not been determined whether Brooks was African American.) As all U.S. Armed Forces were segregated during World War II, the casting of African American actor Kenneth Spencer was notable. The New York Times reviewer commented favorably on the Eeps character, noting that his "placement in the picture is one of the outstanding merits of it." The Hollywood Reporter review stated that "the one Negro role included in the group is performed with distinction by Kenneth Spencer, and the note he sounds is an effective tribute to his race." In early June 1943, the NAACP awarded M-G-M a scroll of merit, congratulating the studio for the film's realism and for showing "how superfluous racial and religious problems are when common danger is faced." In February 1944, the Junior Council of NAACP gave M-G-M a special award for its sympathetic and intelligent portrayal of a black soldier. According to his autobiography, Schary deliberately did not tell writer Robert Andrews that he was going to cast a black actor in one of the roles because he did not want any race-conscious speeches in the script. Hollywood Reporter reported in May 1943 that the film had been pre-screened for a group of soldiers, press correspondents and dignitaries who were on Bataan during the siege, and all approved of the picture. In 1945, RKO produced Back to Bataan , a fact-based sequel to Bataan.