Special Veteran’s Day Edition: BACK TO BATAAN (RKO 1945)

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John Wayne  and Anthony Quinn fight World War II on the backlots of RKO (subbing for the jungles of the Philippines) in BACK TO BATAAN, a stirring exercise in propaganda ripped from headlines of the era. The film was made to stoke audience’s patriotic fires, and succeeds in it’s objective. It’s well directed and shot, has plenty of action, and superb performances by all, including a standout from 14-year-old Ducky Louie.

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Wayne plays Col. Madden, assigned to train Filipino freedom fighters (try saying that three times fast!) to battle the invading Japanese.  Quinn is Capt. Bonifacio, grandson of Filipino revolutionary hero Andres Bonifacio. He’s having issues with his girlfriend Dalisay, who’s the island version of Tokyo Rose (what he doesn’t realize is she’s secretly sending coded messages to the Allies through her broadcasts). Madden and his ragtag crew are out to destroy a Japanese gas depot, but first they encounter schoolteacher Bertha Barnes and little Maximo, whose village has been taken over, and whose principal refused to take down the American flag, and was hung in it’s place in a gruesome scene.

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The resistance fighters come across the infamous Bataan Death March, where Bonifacio has been taken prisoner. They free him, and Madden wants the men to rally around their former leader’s heir. He’s reluctant at first, but comes around and they make things hot for the Japanese. Little Maximo returns to his village and is tortured by the cruel invaders, but refuses to talk, and ends up sacrificing his life for the cause of freedom. Soon, the Americans are coming to the Philippines, and Madden and his guerilla band hold off the Japanese while the incoming Americans land and release the natives from their bondage.

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John Wayne, complete with scruffy beard, is his usual heroic self, and Quinn has never been bad in anything (although he has made some bad films, he always rises above them). The two macho men compliment each other well, with Quinn’s passionate Filipino trading off of Wayne’s stoicism. Wayne and Quinn only made one other film together, the 1947 South American western TYCOON, and it would’ve been interesting to have seen them make more.

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The wonderful Beulah Bondi shines as the schoolteacher, who’s just as tough as Wayne and his men. Miss Bondi was a two-time Oscar nominee (for THE GORGEOUS HUSSY and OF HUMAN HEARTS); although she never won the award, she did receive an Emmy for her final role in a 1976 episode of THE WALTONS. Always a welcome screen presence, Bondi appeared in classics and near classics like STREET SCENE (her film debut), RAIN (with Joan Crawford), the fantasy ON BORROWED TIME, with Jimmy Stewart in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (both times as his mother), TRACK OF THE CAT (as Robert Mitchum’s mom), and A SUMMER PLACE.

That embodiment of Imperial Japanese evil, Richard Loo is on hand as the rotten Major Hasko. Loo, who was actually of Chinese descent, cornered the market on Nippon bad guys during the 40’s in such films as ACROSS THE PACIFIC, BEHIND THE RISING SUN, THE PURPLE HEART, GOD IS MY CO-PILOT, and FIRST YANK INTO TOKYO. Western fans will recognize Paul Fix (Micah on THE RIFLEMAN) as an American aiding the guerillas. And a young actor named Lawrence Tierney appears towards the end as Lt. Commander Waite, just before hitting it big in DILLINGER and other great noirs.

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Then there’s Ducky Louie, the boy playing young Maximo. Unlike a lot of child stars of the era, this kid had a natural acting ability, and holds his own with the pro cast. Ducky’s career was brief, appearing in only six films (most memorably in CHINA’S LITTLE DEVILS as a resistance fighter again,  and BLACK GOLD with costar Quinn). Young Ducky left show biz to become a dentist, and would be 85 if alive today (and if anyone can confirm whether he is or not, please let me know!). If his final death scene doesn’t bring a tear to your eyes, you just don’t have a heart or soul.

Director Edward Dmytryk and screenwriter Ben Barzman were the polar opposites of John Wayne politically, and I’m sure some sparks must’ve flew during shooting. Cinematographer Nicholas Musuraca lends his dark noir touches to the film, and Roy Webb’s score “borrows” from KING KONG, as well as some patriotic tunes. At film’s end, we’re introduced to some of the real survivors of the Bataan Death March, marching along with the cast. Now if THAT doesn’t get you up and saluting, I don’t know what will! BACK TO BATAAN is a rousing actioner, depicting the brutal realities of war, and the brave men who fought for liberty and freedom during WWII. It’s also a fine example of 1940’s Hollywood filmmaking, and contains many outstanding performances, particularly young Ducky Louie.

The real Bataan Death March
The real Bataan Death March

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