“Get your shovels.” BATAAN (1943) and all we need of horror.

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First, a disclaimer. I don’t mean to diminish the sacrifices of the American armed forces and their Philippine compatriots by likening BATAAN (1943), MGM’s chronicle of the 1941-42 Japanese invasion of the Philippine islands during World War II and the crushing Allied defeat that followed, to a horror movie. As fervid as my imagination might be, I cannot even begin to fathom what went on back then, in the first hours, days, weeks, and months following the Japanese bombing of the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, leading up to the fall of the Bataan Peninsula in April 1942 and the subsequent “Bataan Death March,” during which 60,000-80,000 Allied troops were walked at gunpoint across the peninsula. Of the soldiers who survived the failed defense of the islands, tens of thousands perished through mistreatment and malnourishment while interned at Japanese prison camps. Bataan represents a tragic chapter in our nation’s history… and yet it has not retained the stature of other historic battles, such as Bunker Hill or Gettysburg. With the end of World War II growing close to being 70 years in our past, young adults now have no firm connection to those world-changing events. I’m not trying to rectify that problem today but rather to look again at this early WWII film (like the battle itself, largely forgotten) through the prism of my favorite movie genre to see what comes out the other side.

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BATAAN begins in medias res — how could it be otherwise? — as American and Philippine troops and citizens flee the advance of the invading Japanese forces. The grim situation is symbolized by director Tay Garnett with the visual of an American GI (Bud Geary) bearing a local child, presumably an orphan, to safety on his broad, capable shoulders. It’s nearly a scene out of a Normal Rockwell print… until a Japanese “zero” drops out of the clouds to strafe the refugees. What follows is a setpiece of unexpected and disarming carnage as soldiers and civilians run for cover but mostly get cut down in the process. And when the smoke clears…

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… hope is dead and buried. Yes, you could nitpick at the bald-faced propaganda (American bombs killed children too — and continue to!) and the old school Hollywood framing. Or you could go with the emotion, with the depiction of what really happened, which is the path I took. In the main, I’d rather follow a movie’s lead than force it to follow my lead. In short order, the cascading and catastrophic images of BATAAN sharpen to a focus that concretizes what the US defense of the Philippines was all about…

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… as a ragtag assortment of soldiers is tasked to remain behind to slow the Japanese advance. The set-up is Hollywood boilerplate as we’re treated to the expected Whitman’s Character Sampler of the seasoned but reluctant sergeant (Robert Taylor), his sardonic but true-blue pal (Thomas Mitchell), the old guy (Tom Dugan), the kid (Robert Walker), the Latin guy (Desi Arnaz), the Polish guy (Barry Nelson), the black guy (Kenneth Spencer), the intellectual (Phillip Terry), the jerk (Lloyd Nolan), the senior officers (George Murphy, Lew Bowman) who outrank Taylor but yield to his greater experience, and the local allies (Alex Havier, Roque Espiritu). It all seems a bit cozy, apart from the opening text crawl that pretty much informs us that all of these guys are going to die. We go in with the understanding that the Bataan Defense Team (my phrasing) is doomed, which gives BATAAN the feel (if you are of a certain age) of a slasher movie. We know nobody’s getting out of this shit house alive, leaving us to experience only the order and manner of their deaths.

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One little Two little Three they go down as BATAAN progresses towards its logical, historical, and terrible conclusion. In most cases, the doomed soldier of the moment is caught completely by surprise, taking an ill-fated breather, and standing up when he would have done better to remain crouched or flat on his belly. Shots ring out from nowhere — from the trees, from the jungle, from the encroaching mist. The first victim is cut down by a Japanese sniper, the second shot out of the top of a palm tree (where he had hoped to gain the advantage over the enemy, the third discovered with a samurai sword run through him, and the fourth…

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… fatally strafed and walking dead, like a zombie. In fact, several points in BATAAN have their analog in George Romero’s DAWN OF THE DEAD, including a salt and pepper squad buddy duo, a character who dies pitiably in his bed, decapitation by machete, and enemy forces that just keep on coming, no matter how many of them you knock down.

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I don’t know that I’ve ever seen this much blood in an old war movie. It’s not so much characters bleeding from injury, fatal or otherwise, but it’s the blood of others on them, staining their uniforms, their hands, and faces, that’s really disturbing. This trope, if we are to call it that, is one with which we’re more familiar seeing in horror movies: Marilyn Burns in THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE (1974), Sissy Spacek in CARRIE (1974), Bruce Romero in THE EVIL DEAD (1981) and not associated with what amounts to a WWII propaganda picture. Elsewhere death is presented as truly the stuff of nightmares…

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… as a figure the men take initially to be a Japanese sniper turns out to be one of their own, returned from the dead to beckon eerily to them. There are many such frightening, unforgettable moments run through BATAAN but I’ll refrain from posting others because I don’t want to spoil the entire movie for the curious. Suffice it to say, if you don’t flash on Ash from THE EVIL DEAD films in BATAAN‘s last moments:

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The Evil Dead

… then all of his is probably wasted on you. Horror movies, especially modern ones in which all bets are off violence and cruelty-wise and heroism is at a premium, make victims out of all kinds of characters — students, tourists, families, random strangers thrown together by circumstance or fate or bad luck — but rare is the horror film whose victims queue up for slaughter because that’s the job. Again, many contemporary horror movies beat the “based on true events” drum even though the connections are at best tenuous. By comparison, BATAAN isn’t a horror movie — it’s history — and all the more horrifying because it — or something very much like it — really happened.

9 Responses “Get your shovels.” BATAAN (1943) and all we need of horror.
Posted By Doug : August 16, 2013 1:29 pm

As horrific as Bataan may be, death march and all, it serves as a reminder that we sometimes are driven to do horrible things to confront tyrants and ideologies which would enslave/destroy us if not opposed.
The producers of the movie “Bataan” couldn’t know that there would be a happy ending, that 70 years later, Japan, Germany and the United States would be friends, partners in democracy.
A lot of GOOD came out of that necessary evil called WWII.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : August 16, 2013 1:34 pm

I have never seen this movie and the fact that Desi Arnaz is in it boggles my mind! I am sure he’s fine in his role. Need to dvr it next time TCM airs it. We have the coffee table book on WWII that PBS put out a couple years ago. I read part of it and the section on the Philippines, especially Bataan is heart-breaking. Many battalions left behind, with no aid, with surrendering as their option.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : August 16, 2013 1:41 pm

Today’s post on BATAAN was not meant to provoke a debate as to whether World War II was justified or not. (Though I’m in basic agreement with Doug.) I’m more interested in stories about people caught in impossible situations, both factual and fictional, and what those stories say about us, about our fears, our insecurities, about how they reveal what we hold most dear. Movies about people dying violently on screen were not in 1943 products of the horror genre, which remained at that date fairly demure and old fashioned however ghoulish the subject matter. I find it interesting how contemporary horror movies, beginning with the slasher films of the 1980s, co-opted tropes seen originally in combat films (and westerns) – and most of these were the work of filmmakers of draft age who for one reason or another did not serve in the Vietnam conflict. I wonder if there was some kind of survivor guilt at play in the creation of the slasher subgenre, which spawned in its own way the home invasion subgenre typified by films like THE STRANGERS and YOU’RE NEXT.

Posted By swac44 : August 16, 2013 5:00 pm

Sometimes I think of horror films like Night of the Living Dead (fighting an unstoppable, unknowable force) and Last House on the Left (an enemy that doesn’t play by the rules of society, senseless death of the young) as influenced by the Vietnam era, not to mention the more blatant Death Dream by Bob “A Christmas Story” Clark, about a son who comes home from the war, but isn’t quite…right.

I recently re-watched Sands of Iwo Jima for the first time since childhood, and was surprised by how intense the battle sequences were, certainly much more vivid than I remember, and probably more graphic than a horror or action film from the time would have been allowed to be. Although nothing quite tops the image from All Quiet on the Western Front where a soldier is hit by a shell, and all that remains are his two hands clinging to the barbed wire. Still incredible all these years later.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : August 16, 2013 5:03 pm

And that visual has been co-opted by a number of horror movies, perhaps most notably LAND OF THE DEAD.

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-DB56m1eXRgc/TkLiRX3t5VI/AAAAAAAAFEw/si__RyRgwXo/s400/LAND+OF+THE+DEAD-POSTER%2528HAND+ON+WIRE+FENCE%2529.jpg

Posted By Marco : August 17, 2013 5:21 am

Anyone interested in a true account of the military disasters that this movie and several others dipicted during World War II should read John Toland’s “But Not In Shame.” Nothing Hollywood ever filmed could realistically portray what actually happened to the American, British, Dutch, and Australian forces that were overwhelmed by the Japanese during the first six months following the attack on Pearl Harbor. I have always been interested in how these defeats were handled by Hollywood during the war. “Wake Island”, Wing And A Prayer”, “Air Force”, and “They Were Expendable” are probably the very best examples of the “We lost the Battle, but We are going to win the War” films that were used to boost morale and raise awareness of the nature of the fanatical enemy we were facing in the Pacific. “Bataan” is one of the better ones. It actually seems to have been based on some of the small unit actions that were fought during the last ditch fighting by the doomed men in that worst defeat in American military history.

Posted By Emgee : August 17, 2013 5:57 am

Nothing Hollywood ever filmed could realistically portray ANY battle from history; it would be too gruesome.
Try to imagine the carnage in any mediëval battle; if realistically depicted the resulting movie would be unwatchable to most people.

Posted By Doug : August 17, 2013 11:26 pm

Though fictionalized, the battles in “Band Of Brothers” were pretty horrendous. I would have to stop watching sometimes,but I
made it through the series.
I couldn’t get into “The Pacific” and didn’t finish it. I felt like I’d already had my emotions kicked around enough by “Band Of Brothers”. I wasn’t ready to go through that again.

Posted By Heidi : August 19, 2013 12:33 pm

I am very familiar with this movie, and many others depicting WWII. My grandfather was killed on Corrigador, and I have joined the Infantry Division Association made up of people from this division. I actually proof their newsletter, which is neither here nor there. Anyway, it is interesting putting this movie on a horror path, what else is it but horror, after all? It does follow along in horror fashion as a storyline. I have seen it several times, but never really thought of it like that before, so will have to watch it again at some point. “The Pacific” mentioned earlier, was one that I just could not watch. I got perhaps a quarter into it, but it was just too much to take in all at once.

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