Skip to main content

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.

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: Sergeant Bill Dane (Robert Taylor) of the 31st Infantry; Corporal Jake Feingold (Thomas Mitchell) of the Chemical Corps; Lieutenant Steve Bentley (George Murphy) of the U.S. Army Air Corps; Captain Henry Lassiter (Lee Bowman) of the 26th Cavalry; Corporal Barney Todd (Lloyd Nolan) of the Provisional Signal Battalion; Musician 2nd Class Leonard Purckett (Robert Walker) of the U.S. Navy; Private Felix Ramirez (Desi Arnaz) of the California National Guard; Private Matthew Hardy (Phillip Terry) of the Medical Corps; and Corporal Juan Katigbak (Roque Espiritu) of the Philippine Army Air Corps.

LEFT: Robert Taylor, Robert Walker, Lloyd Nolan and Thomas Mitchell. RIGHT: Robert Walker, Robert Taylor and Tom Dugan.
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 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 started 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 stationed at Pearl Harbor in 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 Lieutenant General 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 surrendered 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, Lieutenant General Jonathan M. Wainwright surrendered the last Allied stronghold in the Philippines: the fortified island of Corregidor.

LEFT: Soldiers of an American artillery unit taking up defensive positions on the Bataan Peninsula. RIGHT: American survivors of the Battle of Bataan under Japanese guard before beginning the Bataan Death March.

In early June 1942, the United States achieved its first victory in the Pacific Theatre of World War II by defeating the Imperial Japanese Navy at the Battle of Midway. Two months later, on August 7, 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 Japanese troops, who had been on 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 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 driven off the island on February 9, 1943, the U.S. had sustained more than 7,000 casualties and the enemy had lost almost three times that number. The hard-won American victory at Guadalcanal marked the real turning point of the war in the Pacific.
LEFT: A Japanese heavy cruiser after it was bombed by U.S. Navy aircraft during the Battle of Midway. RIGHT: U.S. Marines during the Battle of Guadalcanal.

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 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's «B» picture unit, he «jumped at the idea [...] because [he] wanted to tell the people they were in for a tough fight.» Schary considered the portrayal of the rearguard action by the doomed American troops during the Battle of Bataan as «pure propaganda that prepared the audience for a long struggle and gave it a morale boost

The cast of Bataan in publicity stills for the film.
Andrews wrote a screenplay that featured characters from different ethnic groups, giving them individual traits with which people could empathize. Initially, there was a Native American private named 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 standing alone in his grave, firing his machine gun at the enemy. Instead, he is rescued by another patrol — just like what happens to Victor McLaglen's character in The Lost Patrol — and, as they all march out, a voice-over 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.» Due to the obvious similarities 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 possible copyright infringement lawsuits. In his autobiography, Schary apparently referred to Bataan as a «remake» of The Lost Patrol.

LEFT: Robert Taylor as Sgt. Bill Dane. RIGHT: Lloyd Nolan and Robert Taylor.

In October 1942, it was announced that Walter Pidgeon has been cast as Sgt. Bill 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, in addition to starring in several instructional films and narrating the Academy Award-winning documentary The Fighting Lady (1944).

To support Taylor, MGM engaged «the usual roster of character actors»: Oscar 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 be Danny Burns, a soldier accused of murder who had escaped before the war while being guarded by Dane, then a military policeman; 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.

LEFT: Barry Nelson, Kenneth Lee Spencer, Robert Walker, Desi Arnaz and Robert Taylor. RIGHT: George Muprhy, Alex Havier and Robert Taylor.

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 parts in These Glamour Girls (1939) and Dancing Co-Ed (1939), Bataan gave him with his first major screen role. Walker's charming demeanour and boyish good looks caught on with audiences and he became one MGM's brightest young stars for the remainder of the decade. His other screen credits include Thirty Second Over Tokyo (1944), The Clock (1945) and Her Highness and the Bellboy (1945).
LEFT: Lloyd Nolan and Robert Walker. RIGHT: Robert Walker in a publicity still for Bataan.
Given the film's modest production demands in terms of men and equipment, MGM did not require Army assistance to make Bataan. 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.
LEFT: George Murphy, Desi Arnaz, Alex Havier and Robert Walker. RIGHT: George Murphy, Lee Bowman, Robert Taylor and Roque Espiritu.

 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 constructed «a real-as-hell jungle,» which had «everything 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.
LEFT: Tay Garnett and Robert Walker on the set of Bataan. RIGHT: Robert Taylor and Robert Walker during a break from filming.

Bataan premiered on June 3, 1943 to uniformly positive critical reviews and good box-office results. Although noting that the film had «melodramatic flaws» and technical mistakes, the reviewer for The New York Times thought it «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 daysTime 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

Guts & Glory: The Making of the American Military Image in Film by Lawrence H. Suid (The University Press of Kentucky, 2002)
History in the Media: Film and Television by Robert Niemi (ABC-CLIO, 2006)
The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre by Jeanine Basinger (Wesleyan University Press, 2003)


Popular posts from this blog

Golden Couples: Gary Cooper & Patricia Neal

It was April 1948 when director King Vidor spotted 22-year-old Patricia Neal on the Warner Bros. studio lot. A drama graduate from Northwestern University, she had just arrived in Hollywood following a Tony Award-winning performance in Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest . Impressed by Patricia's looks, Vidor approached the young actress and asked if she would be interested in doing a screen test for the female lead in his newest film, The Fountainhead (1949). Gary Cooper had already signed as the male protagonist, and the studio was then considering Lauren Bacall and Barbara Stanwyck to play his love interest.          Neal liked the script and about two months later, she met with the director for sound and photographic tests. Vidor was enthusiastic about Patricia, but her first audition was a complete disaster. Cooper was apparently watching her from off the set and he was so unimpressed by her performance that he commented, « What's that!? » He tried to con

Golden Couples: Henry Fonda & Barbara Stanwyck

In the mid- and late 1930s, screwball comedy was in vogue and practically every actress in Hollywood tried her hand at it. Barbara Stanwyck never considered herself a naturally funny person or a comedienne per se , but after delivering a heart-wrenching performance in King Vidor's Stella Dallas (1937), she decided she needed a « vacation » from emotional dramas. In her search for a role, she stumbled upon a « champagne comedy » called The Mad Miss Manton (1938), originally intended as a Katharine Hepburn vehicle. Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda as Melsa and Peter in The Mad Miss Manton .   Directed by Leigh Jason from a script by Philip G. Epstein, The Mad Miss Manton begins when vivacious Park Avenue socialite Melsa Manton finds a corpse while walking her dogs in the early hours of the morning. She calls the police, but they dismiss the incident — not only because Melsa is a notorious prankster, but also because the body disappears in the meantime. Sarcastic newspaper editor

Films I Saw in 2020

For the past four years, I have shared with you a list of all the films I saw throughout 2016 , 2017 , 2018 and 2019 , so I thought I would continue the «tradition» and do it again in 2020. This list includes both classic and «modern» films, which make up a total of 161 titles. About three or four of these were re-watches, but I decided to include them anyway. Let me know how many from these you have seen. As always, films marked with a heart ( ❤ ) are my favorites. Sherlock Jr. (1924) | Starring Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire and Joe Keaton The Crowd (1928) | Starring James Murray, Eleanor Boardman and Bert Roach Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) | Starring Henry Fonda, Alice Brady and Marjorie Weaver Brief Encounter (1945) | Starring Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard and Stanley Holloway The Bells of St. Mary's (1945) | Starring Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman The Girl He Left Behind (1956) | Starring Tab Hunter and Natalie Wood Gidget (1959) | Starring Sandra Dee, Cliff Robertson an

Wings of Change: The Story of the First Ever Best Picture Winner

Wings was the first ever film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Since then, it has become one of the most influential war dramas, noted for its technical realism and spectacular air-combat sequences. This is the story of how it came to be made.   A man and his story The concept for Wings originated from a writer trying to sell one of his stories. In September 1924, Byron Morgan approached Jesse L. Lasky, vice-president of Famous Players-Lasky, a component of Paramount Pictures, proposing that the studio do an aviation film. Morgan suggested an «incident and plot» focused on the failure of the American aerial effort in World War I and the effect that the country's «aviation unpreparedness» would have in upcoming conflicts. Lasky liked the idea, and approved the project under the working title «The Menace.»   LEFT: Byron Morgan (1889-1963). RIGHT: Jesse L. Lasky (1880-1958).   During his development of the scenario with William Shepherd, a former war correspondent, Morga

80 Reasons Why I Love Classic Films (Part II)

I started this blog six years ago as a way to share my passion for classic films and Old Hollywood. I used to watch dozens of classic films every month, and every time I discovered a new star I liked I would go and watch their entire filmography. But somewhere along the way, that passion dimmed down. For instance, I watched 73 classic films in 2016, and only 10 in 2020. The other day, I found this film with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. that I had never heard of — the film is Mimi (1935), by the way — and for some reason it made me really excited about Old Hollywood again. It made me really miss the magic of that era and all the wonderful actors and actresses. And it also made me think of all the reasons why I fell in love with classic films in the first place. I came with 80 reasons, which I thought would be fun to share with you. Most of them are just random little scenes or quirky little quotes, but put them together and they spell Old Hollywood to me. Yesterday I posted part one ; here i

Top 10 Favourite Christmas Films

Christmas has always been a source of inspiration to many artists and writers. Over the years, filmmakers have adapted various Christmas stories into both movies and TV specials, which have become staples during the holiday season all around the world. Even though Christmas is my favourite holiday, I haven't watched a lot of Christmas films. Still, I thought it would be fun to rank my top 10 favourites, based on the ones that I have indeed seen. Here they are.  10. Holiday Affair (1949) Directed by Don Hartman, Holiday Affair tells the story of a young widow (Janet Leigh) torn between a boring attorney (Wendell Corey) and a romantic drifter (Robert Mitchum). She's engaged to marry the boring attorney, but her son (Gordon Gebert) likes the romantic drifter better. Who will she choose? Well, we all know who she will choose.   Holiday Affair is not by any means the greatest Christmas film of all time, but it's still a very enjoyable Yule-tide comedy to watch over the holi

The Gotta Dance! Blogathon: Gene Kelly & Judy Garland

In 1940, up-and-coming Broadway star Gene Kelly was offered the lead role in Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's new musical Pal Joey , based on the eponymous novel by John O'Hara about an ambitious and manipulative small-time nightclub performer. Opening at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Christmas Day of that year, the show brought Gene his best reviews up to that date. For instance, John Martin of The New York Times wrote of him: «A tap-dancer who can characterize his routines and turn them into an integral element of an imaginative theatrical whole would seem to be pretty close, indeed, to unique .»   One of Gene's performances in Pal Joey was attended by established Hollywood star Judy Garland , who requested to meet him after the show. Gene agreed and then accompanied Judy and her entourage, which included her mother Ethel and several press agents, to dinner at the newly-opened Copacabana nightclub, at 10 East 60th Street. They sang and danced until 3 a.m., after whi

Films I Saw in July & August

In the past five years, I shared a year-end list of the films I saw throughout 2016 , 2017 , 2018 , 2019 and 2020 . For 2021, I decided to do this monthly and share a list of the films I saw during each month of the year. These are the films I saw in July and August, which make up a total of 18 titles. As always, films marked with a heart ( ❤ ) are my favourites.   Resistance (2011) | Starring Andrea Riseborough, Tom Wlaschiha and Michael Sheen Siberian Education [Educazione siberiana] (2013) | Starring Arnas Fedaravi čius The Last of Robin Hood (2013) | Starring Kevin Kline and Dakota Fanning The Water Diviner (2014) | Starring Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko and Yılmaz Erdoğan Holding the Man (2015) | Starring Ryan Corr, Craig Stott and Anthony LaPaglia The Last King [Birkebeinerne] (2016) | Starring Jakob Oftebro and Kristofer Hivju The Pass (2016) | Starring Russell Tovey and Arinzé Kene Access All Areas (2017) | Starring Ella Purnell, Edward Bluemel and Georgie Henle

The Sinatra Centennial Blogathon: Frank Sinatra & Gene Kelly

  In January 1944, MGM chief Louis B. Mayer happened to see a young crooner by the name of Frank Sinatra perform at a benefit concert for The Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles. According to Nancy Sinatra, Frank's eldest daughter, Mayer was so moved by her father's soulful rendition of « Ol' Man River » that he made the decision right then and there to sign Frank to his studio. Sinatra had been on the MGM payroll once before, singing with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in the Eleanor Powell vehicle Ship Ahoy (1942), although it is very likely that Mayer never bothered to see that film. Now that Frank was «hot,» however, Metro made arrangements to buy half of his contract from RKO, with the final deal being signed in February of that year. Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in  Anchors Aweigh Being a contract player at the studio that boasted «more stars than there are in the heavens» gave Frank a sudden perspective regarding his own talents as a film performer. The «g

Films I Saw in May & June

In the past five years, I shared a year-end list of the films I saw throughout 2016 , 2017 , 2018 , 2019 and 2020 . For 2021, I decided to do this monthly and share a list of the films I saw during each month of the year. These are the films I saw in May and June, which make up a total of 16 titles. As always, films marked with a heart ( ❤ ) are my favourites.   Pelle the Conqueror [Pelle Erobreren] (1987) | Starring Pelle Hvenegaard The Elementary School [ Obecná škola] (1991) | Starring Václav Jakoubek Female Agents [Les Femmes de l'ombre] (2008) | Starring Sophie Marceau Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe [Vor der Morgenröte] (2016) | Starring Josef Hader ❤ Cold War [Zimna wojna] (2018) | Starring Tomasz Kot, Joanna Kulig and Borys Szyc Dreamland (2019) | Starring Finn Cole, Margot Robbie, Travis Fimmel and Garrett Hedlund Mr Jones (2019) | Starring James Norton, Vanessa Kirby and Peter Sarsgaard Official Secrets (2019) | Starring Keira Knightley, Matt Smith an