Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Blindspot: Back to Bataan (1945)

I'll be honest here and admit that I did not go into this one with high expectations. Back to Bataan was a film that had been sitting in my drawer for years. The truth is the only reason I had it was because of this one time I found it among some low-priced DVDs and I happened to be a big John Wayne fan at the time. If it hadn't been for him I probably would have overlooked this one entirely. Going in now offered a better understanding of why the film was made, but that was really about it. I expected this film to be basically American propaganda and I was more or less right, as you can expect from a Hollywood film made just as World War II was ending.

Though the film begins with a disclaimer claiming that the story is based on real events, Back to Bataan is really a sequel to a 1943 combat film called Bataan. That film centered on a small ragtag group of American soldiers who were forced to band together in order to make a stand against the Japanese. Bataan basically ended with everybody dying and the last man standing trying to take as many Japanese soldiers with him as he can. There was then a title card which promised that one day America would return to avenge its fallen soldiers and retake Bataan.

Unfortunately, real life failed to deliver on that promise, so a sequel was made to "fulfill" it: Back to Bataan. That's literally all this film is: it's an American fantasy made to fulfill a so-called promise made in a single film two years earlier because reality didn't work out the way people wanted it to. John Wayne plays the role of Colonel Joseph Madden, an army officer given some kind of top secret mission to unite members of the Filipino resistance against the oppression of the Japanese. Meanwhile, a middle-aged teacher named Bertha Barnes (Beulah Bondi) is running a school at a local village in which she tries to force American values on provide a proper education for Filipino children. Unfortunately for her, the village is invaded by Japanese soldiers who show they mean business by hanging the principal over the American flag. Then some stuff happens and Madden suddenly decides to try and help the village or something while we occasionally get glimpses of Japanese atrocities.

One thing I only found out after seeing Back to Bataan is that the filmmakers were trying to keep up to date with current events in the war and had to keep changing the script according to major developments. Unfortunately for them, it really shows. The story gets extremely disjointed and confusing as the film develops, probably the result of all the abrupt changes being made to accommodate what was going on in the actual war. None of the characters really seemed particularly memorable, and plot threads seem to come and go out of nowhere. Even the basic military objectives of the main characters weren't very well explained.

There were also plot threads that never really seemed to connect; like the film begins and ends with the liberation of a Japanese POW camp and then takes the time to identify several of the captives... and it has no connection to the rest of the story. It never ties into the central plot, none of the POWs named make an appearance outside of those scenes, let alone have a part in the actual narrative. The POW raid itself was also ridiculous, considering it happened in the most unsubtle way imaginable and in real life the Americans would probably have been slaughtered.

In many ways, Back to Bataan is really a product of its time. While some credit could be given to there being at least an attempt to present strong sympathetic Filipino characters, most of them are stereotypes by today's standards and the choice to cast Anthony Quinn, a white actor, as someone who is supposed to be Asian can definitely leave a bad taste for modern viewers. Also true to propaganda of the era, the Japanese are given no humanity. The only Japanese character of note is a single officer (the rest are anonymous soldiers) who is also a very obvious stereotype and treated as a monster. While historically the Japanese did commit some horrifying war crimes and ran POW camps that calling inhumane would be an understatement, this part of the film has definitely not aged well.

The only thing that I would say makes Back to Bataan at all a worthwhile experience for anyone is from a purely historical perspective. It does offer some insight into American views of World War II and makes sense for scholars who want to study this film and how it fits into contemporary cinematic reactions to the war. So for academics and scholars this film might be okay to look at, but for casual viewing there are better options as far as John Wayne movies go. Personally, I'd say John Wayne's later propaganda film The Green Berets is a better choice; as much as most people today would disagree with its pro-Vietnam messages at least that one was somewhat entertaining and had a coherent story. There isn't much of that in Back to Bataan.

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