Directed by Tay Garnett, the 1943 movie might seem cheesy on first viewing due to its instantly predictable—yet at the time innovative—plot
If you’re of a certain age, you’ve probably turned on the television late at night and stumbled upon Bataan, a 1943 film about a squad of American soldiers caught up in the doomed defense of the Philippines. It’s unlikely you gave the film much thought. If you did, you might have told yourself, “This isn’t Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949), or possibly “This isn’t Saving Private Ryan” (1998). Or, for that matter, The Big Red One (1980), Platoon (1986), or American Sniper (2014). But all these movies share something in common: they are examples of the combat film genre. And, film historian Jeanine Basinger argues, they all owe a debt to Bataan, an otherwise forgettable movie made entirely on a Hollywood backlot.
The success of a genre film depends upon the assumptions that audiences bring with them into the theater. When we see a certain kind of movie—a Western, an action thriller, or a romantic comedy, for example—we come with expectations. The cavalry will arrive in the nick of time to save the embattled settlers; the hero will hurtle from one heart-pounding peril to the next; the guy will meet the girl, lose the girl, and then get the girl. We feel cheated when these genre conventions aren’t observed. We are delighted, shocked, or plunged into thoughtful silence when they are observed in an unexpected way.
In 1978, Basinger began searching for the first example of the World War II combat film, which she argues is a distinct genre in a way that the war film is not. (A war film is merely any film that prominently features a war; The Bridge on the River Kwai, released in 1957, is a war movie, but so is the 1958 musical South Pacific.) She began by looking for “what presumably every member of our culture would know about World War II combat films—that they contained a hero, a group of mixed types, and a military objective of some sort.” After viewing dozens of movies, she settled upon Bataan as the first to fully combine all of these genre elements.
Bataan was a product of the Golden Age of Hollywood, when the major studios cranked out hundreds of films on a nearly assembly-line basis. It was the 28th film directed by Tay Garnett, best known for The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). It was the 37th film for lead actor Robert Taylor, who played Sergeant Bill Dane, a noncommissioned officer of the U.S. 31st Infantry Regiment assigned to take an improvised squad of 11 men to blow up a strategically vital bridge to prevent the advancing Japanese army from rebuilding it.
It’s a doomed mission—and as the film progresses, we see them perish, one by one, down to Sergeant Dane himself. But we also get to know them. They represent a racial and ethnic cross section of America—six WASPs, as Basinger calls them; a Mexican American; a Jew; a Pole; an Irishman; and an African American, as well as two Filipinos. And they are recognizable types; among them, the Hero (Sergeant Dane); the Youth (a wet-behind-the-ears navy musician, played by Robert Walker); the Comic Relief (Tom Dugan as a wisecracking mechanic); and the Hero’s Adversary—a cynical, shadowy corporal acted flawlessly by Lloyd Nolan, who, Basinger writes, is “an important stand-in for audience doubts, and for its unwillingness to face the hardships the war will bring.”
When my editor inquired about my next column’s topic and I told her it would focus on Bataan, she asked if I could have a draft to her by a certain date. That would not be a problem, I replied. “The problem,” I added, “will be having to watch the movie again. Yes, it’s the foundation of the combat film genre and, in that sense, important. But it’s pretty hokey.” I did re-watch the film, of course, and when I did, I felt a sense of disappointment. Not in the movie, however, but in myself.
Bataan is actually competently written, well-directed, capably acted, and surprisingly realistic considering its limited budget and filming locations restricted to studio sets. Yes, it has its hokey moments, as when Private Felix Ramirez fiddles with a shortwave radio until he finds a big band orchestra playing live in the U.S. “That’s Tommy Dorsey from Hollywood!” he tells Sergeant Dane giddily. “Oh, he sends me, Sarge! He makes me lace up my boots!…. Give me some of that trombone talk, Tommy!”
But for the most part, Bataan holds up well. If it seems mundane, it’s only because the genre conventions it first assembled are now so familiar, having influenced some of the finest war films ever made. Bataan, I realized, is one of those things in life we often overlook: an exquisite gift right in front of us, if we only had eyes to see. ✯
This article was published in the April 2021 issue of World War II.