It’s early in 1942 and the Japanese are successfully overrunning the American and Philippine forces. The Allies need more time, and America is asking these brave men to fight as hard as they can to win that time. A group of thirteen men are thrown together and given a single task: to blow up a bridge and stop the Japanese from fixing it or rebuilding it as long as they can, or until ordered to retreat. When snipers shoot Captain Lassiter (Lee Bowman), Sgt. Bill Dane (Robert Taylor) must keep his rag-tag bunch together and fighting.
Bataan was made at the height of the Second World War, in 1943, and it is interesting to compare it to some of the later films of the war era. Many of these films feature men from all different backgrounds, and Bataan is no exception. They include Dane’s friend and fellow old-timer Jake Feingold (Thomas Mitchell), a pilot (George Murphy, Battleground), a shiftless crook (Lloyd Nolan), a green, stranded Navy kid (Robert Walker), Hispanic American Felix Ramirez (Desi Arnaz, I Love Lucy), a Filipino soldier who knows the area (Roque Espiritu), an African-American engineer (Kenneth Spencer), a conscientious objector medic (Phillip Terry,The Leech Woman), and a cranky old cook (Tom Dugan, The Song of the Thin Man). We get the usual conflict between a Sgt. and the crook, the medic eventually comes around and dies a glorious death throwing grenades, Arnaz gets a death scene where he speaks English, Spanish, and prays in Latin, and so on. While it is significant that director Tay Garnett (The Postman Always Rings Twice) and screenwriter Robert Hardy Andrews treat Spencer, Arnaz, and Espiritu with a greater degree of respect than minority characters usually received in this period, it’s right in line with the rest World War Two propaganda which sought to show America’s many races and ethnic groups united against their foes. Even so, Spencer’s character, is pretty surprising given the time. Although he does stray a bit into “Magic Negro” territory, with his keeping morale up by singing “St. Louis Blues” (of course, Spencer was actually a singer, so you could forgive this bit) and being a divinity student who prays at the graves of each man who dies, Spencer is brave, fights hard, and dies heroically. It’s a progressive role, and the film was banned in the South for including his character; way to engage in your usual hypocrisy, America.
What sets Bataan apart is that it is about a doomed delaying action, so the focus is not on the men winning, but on their sacrifice, buying the other retreating defenders time, and on the cruelty (and craft) of their Japanese opponents. One by one the Japanese pick them off, some, receiving gruesome deaths by swords and hanging, as well as sniper fire and being riddled with bullets by aircraft, in death scenes far more explicit than typical for the time. The depiction of the Japanese as an unseen opponent stalking in the jungle is taken so far as to become silly; even when the patrol is reduced to just a handful of men, the Japanese use the old Hamlet trick of advancing under the cover of tree branches instead of just charging in (strange, considering the Japanese reputation for sometimes suicidal charges). There’s also an amazing amount of racial and ethnic slurs directed at the Japanese, common for the time but startling now.
Taken on the its own terms as a propaganda film, Bataan is only a partial success. The relationship between Dane and the crook drags on and on and is never engaging, and Nolan is so good at playing a heel that it is hard to take his redemption seriously. There is also Robert Walker’s irritating Odious Comic Relief character, who lives through the majority of the film while the more enjoyable characters played by Arnaz, Dugan, Espiritu and Barry Nelson (The Shining) get killed off relatively early. Still, the film delivers enough action and character moments at a pace that keeps the viewer interested, and if one enjoys propaganda soaked glorious deaths and can get past the racism of the time, it is an entertaining (and at times fascinating in a historical sense) film.