Posted by Richard Harland Smith on August 16, 2013
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.
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…
… 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…
… 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.
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…
… 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.
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…
… 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:
… 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.
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