Friday, 14 October 2016

Film Friday: "Bataan" (1943)

To celebrate Robert Walker's 98th birthday, which was yesterday, this week on "Film Friday" I thought I would tell you a little bit about the picture that introduced me to him. This also marked his first significant screen assignment.

Original release poster
Directed by Tay Garnett, Bataan (1943) centers on a combat unit in an isolated jungle outpost in the Bataan Peninsula, which is being overrun by invading Japanese troops. The unit of thirteen disenfranchised men includes: Sgt. Bill Dane (Robert Taylor) of the 31st Infantry; Cpl. Jake Feingold (Thomas Mitchell) of the Chemical Corps; Lt. Steve Bentley (George Murphy) of the U.S. Army Air Corps; Capt. Henry Lassiter (Lee Bowman) of the 26th Cavalry; Cpl. Barney Todd (Lloyd Nolan) of the Provisional Signal Battalion; Musician 2nd Class Leonard Purckett (Robert Walker) of the U.S. Navy; Pvt. Felix Ramirez (Desi Arnaz) of the California National Guard; Pvt. Matthew Hardy (Phillip Terry) of the Medical Corps; and Cpl. Juan Katigbak (Roque Espiritu) of the Philippine Army Air Corps.

Dane, a no-nonsense career soldier, explains to the men that their mission is to destroy a bridge along the peninsula and prevent the Japanese from rebuilding it. The men succeed in their assignment, but their victory celebration is cut short when Lassiter is killed by a sniper. Soon after, engineer Pvt. Francis Matowski (Barry Nelson) is shot down and killed as he climbs a tree to scan for the enemy, while Pvt. "Yankee" Salazar (Alex Havier) of the Philippines Scouts is found stabbed to death. In the meantime, Katigbak is tortured to death while returning to camp after helping Purckett and Bentley repair the latter's nearby plane; Felix succumbs to malaria; and Pvt. Sam Malloy (Tom Dugan) of the Motor Transport Service is killed during a Japanese aerial attack. With almost half of the unit dead, Bentley attempts to take off in his plane, but is mortally wounded by the enemy before getting off the ground. He then has the men load dynamite aboard and deliberately crashes into the bridge, which the Japanese had already begun to rebuild, causing a huge explosion. Distraught over Bentley's sacrifice, Hardy runs madly into the jungle hurling a grenade and is shot down. A brutal Japanese assault follows, resulting in the deaths of Feingold and Pvt. Wesley Eeps (Kenneth Lee Spencer) of the Corps of Engineers. A wounded Purckett is subsequently killed by a sniper, while Todd is stabbed by a Japanese soldier who had only feigned being dead. Now alone, an exhausted Dane digs his own grave, where he stands firing at the swarming enemy, doing his duty to the deadly end.

Lieutenant Bill Dane: Come on, suckers! What's the matter with you? What are you waitin' for? Didn't think we were here, did you? You dirty rotten rats! We're still here! We'll always be here! Why don't you come and get it?

Hours after attacking the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941, Japanese carrier planes bombed the main bases of the American Far East Air Force in the Philippines. A few days later, the Imperial Japanese Army led by Lt. Gen. Masaharu Homma invaded Luzon, Mindanao and several other islands in the Philippine archipelago, effectively gaining air and land superiority over the region. After the fall of Manila in early January 1942, the outnumbered Filipino and American forces commanded by General Douglas MacArthur retreated south into the mountainous and heavily forested Bataan Peninsula on the western side of Luzon. Despite a lack of supplies, the refugee soldiers fought the Japanese for three months, but eventually surrended Bataan on April 9. More than 70,000 half-starved, exhausted and disease-ridden troops were then forced to make a 65-mile (105-kilometer) march to a Japanese P.O.W. camp on the southern end of the peninsula. The so-called "Bataan Death March" was marked by severe physical abuse and caused the demise of thousands of men. On May 6, Lt. Gen. Jonathan M. Wainwright surrended the last Allied stronghold in the Philippines: the fortified island of Corregidor.

In early June 1942, the United States achieved its first victory in the Pacific Theater of World War II by defeating the Imperial Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway. Two months later, on August 7, 1942, the U.S. 1st Marine Division led by Major General Alexander Vandegrift launched an amphibious invasion of the jungle of Guadalcanal in the southern Solomon Islands. The Marines overwhelmed the outnumbered Japanese troops, who had occupied the islands since May, seized the airfield that they were building, completed it and renamed it Henderson Field. Surprised by the Allied offensive, the Japanese rushed in reinforcements from a major base at Rabaul in Papua New Guinea and, over the next six months, a series of desperate land, sea and air battles for control of Guadalcanal ensued. Both sides faced fetid heat, torrential rains, malaria and dysentery, food and supply shortages, all while taking heavy losses in the continued fighting. By the time the Japanese were finally driven off the island on February 9, 1943, the United States had sustained more than 7,000 casualties and the enemy lost almost three times that number. The hard-won American victory at Guadalcanal marked the real turning point of the war in the Pacific.

Lloyd Nolan and Robert Taylor
Inspired by the recent critical acclaim and commercial success of Paramount's Wake Island (1942) — which told the story of a group of U.S. Marines trying to keep the Imperial Japanese Navy from capturing their base — screenwriter Robert Hardy Andrews became interested in penning a film based on the Battle of Bataan. Wanting to stress the savagery of the Japanese military and emphasize the heroism of the Filipino and American resistance, Andrews borrowed the plot of his script from John Ford's The Lost Patrol (1934), wherein Arab snipers wipe out a British unit stranded in the desert during World War I, until only one man is left standing. When Andrews proposed the project to Dore Schary, the newly-appointed head of MGM's "B" picture unit, he "jumped at the idea. [...] because I wanted to tell the people they were in for a tough fight." Schary considered the portrayal of the rearguard action by the doomed Americans as "pure propaganda that prepared the audience for a long struggle and gave it a morale boost."

Andrews wrote a screenplay that featured characters from different ethnic groups, who had individual identities and traits with which people could empathize. Initially, there was a Native American soldier named Private Edward Evening Star, but he was ultimately eliminated because "his characterization was weak and there were already thirteen men to characterize and kill off." The other major script revision involved the film's ending, which originally did not have the hero, the "tough-as-nails" career-driven Infantry Sergeant Bill Dane alone in his grave, firing his machine gun at the enemy. Instead, he is rescued by another patrol just like what happens to the character played by Victor McLaglen in The Lost Patrol and, as they all march out, a voiceover pays tribute to the fighting troops of the United States. The American flag appears on screen as the voice says, "That their flag and ours will rise again where they made their last stand." Jeanine Basinger argues that "changing the script to show no rescue just total death not only influenced the genre, but made the film much more powerful." Due to the obvious similarity between The Lost Patrol and Bataan (which was even to be called "Bataan Patrol"), MGM paid RKO $6,500 for the script written by Dudley Nichols, in order to avoid any copyright infrigement lawsuits. In his autobiography, Schary apparently referred to Bataan as a "remake" of the Ford film.

Robert Taylor in a publicity still
In October 1942, it was announced that Walter Pidgeon would play Sgt. Dane, described as a "new model sergeant" in the "new model United States Army." However, he was soon replaced by Robert Taylor, who had just finished work on the World War II drama Stand by for Action (1942), in which he played a young, Harvard-educated Navy officer. Bataan would be Taylor's last film before enlisting in the U.S. Naval Air Corps, where he served from 1943 to 1945. Commissioned as a Lieutenant, he became a flight instructor for the Naval Air Transport division and directed several instructional films.

To support Taylor, MGM engaged "the usual roster of character actors": Academy Award winner Thomas Mitchell as Cpl. Jake Feingold; George Murphy as Army Air Corps pilot Lt. Steve Bentley; Lloyd Nolan (replacing Richard Whorf) as signalman Cpl. Barney Todd, who actually turns out to Danny Burns, a soldier accused of murder who had escaped before the war while being guarded by then-military policeman Dane; and Tom Dugan as cook Pvt. Sam Malloy. Phillip Terry was borrowed from Paramount to replace Richard Carlson as conscientious objector Pvt. Matthew Hardy, while opera singer Kenneth Lee Spencer was cast as Pvt. Wesley Eeps, a black demolitions expert. Newcomers Barry Nelson and Desi Arnaz, who both served in the U.S. Army during the war, appeared respectively as Pvt. Francis Xavier Matowski and Pvt. Felix Ramirez.

The role of Leonard Purckett, a naïve young musician in the U.S. Navy, was given to another newcomer, Robert Walker. A graduate from the Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, Walker was discovered doing commercial announcements on radio in Chicago by an MGM talent scout. Although he had previously appeared in small uncredited roles in These Glamour Girls (1939) and Dancing Co-Ed (1939), Bataan provided him with his first significant screen role. Walker's charming demeanor and boyish good looks would soon caught on with audiences and he became one MGM's brightest young stars for the remainder of the decade. His other credits include Thirty Second Over Tokyo (1944), The Clock (1945) and Her Highness and the Bellboy (1945).

Robert Walker, Robert Taylor and Tom Dugan
Given the film's modest production demands in terms of men and equipment, MGM did not require Army assistance. Nevertheless, the studio submitted the script to the War Department in October 1942 "for the record." The Public Relations Office found it "a good story," which "could make a good picture but not a great picture." The chief of the Feature Film Division did not think the script justified cooperation. Nor did he think MGM needed help, since "the equipment of the personnel involved can all be assembled at the studio; all of the men in the patrol would have to be actors; the Japs, extras. The whole picture could probably be made on the back lot, or on location very nearby." Even though it did not intend to provide assistance, the Army, as usual, informed the studio it "desired that where officers or soldiers appear in uniform, they be correctly attired, and conduct themselves in a manner consistent with the customs and courtesies of the Service." The Pictorial Branch therefore suggested that the producer hire a retired officer to serve as technical advisor and asked to review the film for military accuracy prior to its release.

Given the wartime restrictions on travel and the film's small-scale combat scenes, MGM decided to shoot Bataan entirely on its Sound Stage 16. According to director Tay Garnett, the studio's set designers contructed "a real-as-hell jungle," which had "everthing except sixteen-foot snakes." To increase the dramatic impact of this action, Garnett used all the tricks of his directorial art. When he became unhappy with the way his actors were reacting when shot, the special effects men tied ropes around the soldiers selected to die and, on cue, the technicians jerked the lines to provide the desired visual effect. Likewise, the director heightened the feel of reality in the film's climatic scene by creating jungle "ground fog," through which the Japanese soldiers advanced toward Taylor, the last survivor of the doomed patrol. In this case, the special effects men dumped dry ice into tubs of water and blew the resulting vapor across the set. In addition to creating the proper appearance of a misty terrain, the fumes nearly killed two extras who ignored warnings not to breathe as they crawled through the fog. Despite the near tragedy, the visual effect of the vapor added greatly to the power of the closing sequence.

Bataan premiered on June 3, 1943 to uniformly excellent critical reviews and good box-office results. Although noting that Bataan had "melodramatic flaws" and technical mistakes, the New York Times reviewer thought the film "still gives a shocking conception of the defense of that bloody point of land. And it doesn't insult the honor of dead soldiers, which is something to say for a Hollywood film these days." Time magazine thought that the film's drama was "constantly loud and over emphatic. But there are a few stretches when the military situation calls for silence; the noisy sound track quiets down and, for a moment, incredibly enough, Hollywood's war takes on the sense, classic values of understatement."


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SOURCES:
Guts & Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film by Lawrence H. Suid (2002) | History in the Media: Film and Television by Robert Niemi (2006) | The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre by Jeanine Basinger (2003) | TCMDb (Articles) | TCMDb (Notes) |

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