THE STORY OF THE “INVISIBLE ARMY OF THE PHILIPPINES”
People are often surprised when you tell them that John Wayne was never in the military. For so many people, he holds an indelible image in their minds as one of two things - Cowboy or Soldier - when the fact is that he was neither one. In fact, considering his celluloid image, as well as his parades and opinions that occasionally became a bit fascistic, it’s even stranger to think that he was regarded by some as a draft-dodger. Despite some relatively half-hearted steps towards enlisting, he ultimately decided to stay home, look after his four kids, work on his crumbling marriage, and make films that stirred morale and patriotic spirit in the States. Back to Bataan was an example of one of those films.
On 6th May 1942, Japanese military forces attacked the US colonies in the Philippines, taking control of points of great strategic value. When a retreat is called, Colonel Joseph Madden (John Wayne), one of the soldiers who managed to escape the initial attack, is ordered to stay and organise a guerrilla army within the remaining populace. For help, Madden appeals to Captain Andrés Bonifácio (Anthony Quinn), the grandson of the legendary freedom fighter Andres Bonifácio that Madden fought against years before. However, Bonifácio initially struggles to live up to the memory of his grandfather.
Back to Bataan is actually quite interesting for a number of reasons. On one count, it puts its focus on the fighting that took place on the island of Luzon in the Philippines during the Second World War, which is a part of conflict that’s still not known too well. The US had basically been in charge of the Philippines since the beginning of the 20th Century, although they had been given Commonwealth status around five years before the outbreak of WWII. When Japan attacked the US, these colonies served their strategic uses, although the Japanese eventually invaded them and tried to claim the Philippines as part of the Japanese empire. Thus a joint effort between the US military and Filipino guerrilla fighters fought back and, eventually, cleared away the invading forces. It’s not really a story that gets much attention, although this may be due, in part, to the fact that the initial retreat by the US was massive. Nevertheless, they did return, Cavalry-like, a few years later and retook the territory. As such, the fact that this film offers a look at this particular historical conflict is very interesting in itself.
Another thing that makes the film interesting on a production note is that the writing of the film was actually affected by the events it was dramatising as they happened. Producer Robert Fellows had already produced two films that centred on the conflict in the Pacific (the moderate Marine Raiders and the slightly better Bombardier), and had decided to go back again for another go. This time, his focus was the initial invasion by the Imperial Japanese Army. He hired Aeneas MacKenzie and William Gordon to come up with the basic story, and Ben Barzman and Richard H. Landau to actually write the script. However, the writing actually continued throughout the filmmaking process, because they were constantly changing the script depending on what news came from the Pacific. In fact, they were more than halfway through filming when the US forces returned to Luzon with the aim of reclaiming their colonies. Naturally, this placed a substantial rewrite on the production. It’s not often that the film being made is so changed by the current events it’s trying to depict. Due to these changes, filming took around four months to finish.
There are other more political reasons that the film is interesting, though not as much as the military conflicts happening on the other side of the world at the time. You see, John Wayne was one of the most famous and vocal opponents of Communism in the McCarthy witch-hunts of the late 40s and 50s. In fact, in 1947, he was elected president of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, effectively a group of Hollywood notables that stood against Communism and anything deemed subversive or “un-American”. It was actually on this film that Wayne supposedly had his first run-in with those with Communistic sympathies. Director Edward Dmytryk and Wayne had a few exchanges onset that stemmed from this issue. Dmytryk actually went on to be a member of the infamous "Hollywood Ten", a small group of directors, writers and producers that were the first to be called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, who then refused to cooperate and were put in jail. HUAC would also later blacklist primary screenwriter for Back to Bataan, Ben Barzman, for holding Communistic beliefs. As it is, Barzman moved to Britain to find work, and Dmytryk would eventually testify before the Committee and be allowed to continue his career. So, as it goes, Back to Bataan held the vague beginnings of political intrigue, too.
These are all considerations that are separate from the actual film, of course. There still remains the question as to whether or not the film is any good, outside of any significance on a historical, political or production level.
That the events being depicted in the film changed so completely during the filming is fairly clear, with a pretty obvious cover on where the shift happened. That said, it does lend earlier scenes a certain darker tone. Given that all the filmmakers knew of the real events was that the Japanese invaded and the US eventually retreated, leaving behind a small Filipino guerrilla faction to fend for themselves for a while, it has something of a sombre, slightly pessimistic feeling. When Madden sits with a group of Filipino fighters shortly after the retreat, he must face their complaints as to why the Americans left them without any help. Madden has no answers for them, other than to half-promise that they shall return and that they need to keep fighting.
On this point, there’s another aspect of the film I personally find a little… not uncomfortable, but not exactly sitting easy either. Rather it’s the decidedly flag-waving nature of the piece. Now, of course, it’s a patriotic WWII picture, ostensibly existing to boost morale amongst those awaiting word from their friends and family who were overseas fighting an actual war, which was still going on the point of release. Films like these were needed for those back home, but also for those actually fighting. It would be very easy to become despondent when you can’t see beyond your own little trench or foxhole or unit, so it was important that these people be given entertainment, but also with some kind of message of hope or light at the end of the tunnel. So, if it helped to get even one solider through another day, then it was worth it. However, I’ve always found these kinds of patriotic shows to be a little unsettling, basically because I don’t particularly care for patriotism as a virtue. There’s probably any number of explanations for that, but it did get in the way of me enjoying the film. For example, there’s a scene in a schoolhouse where the teacher, an old American woman called Bertha Barnes, asks the students what America has given them. Several students enthusiastically leap up to answer “Hotdogs!” “Soda pop!” “Baseball!”… it’s all done in quick cuts, all in close up, every child’s face alive with happiness. Do you know what that scene reminds me of? That bit at the end of the song America, Fuck Yeah from Team America: World Police, where they just start shouting stuff that America stands for, like “Liberty!” “Christmas!” “Sushi!” “Bed Bath and Beyond!” It’s not really a flattering comparison.
It’s not like it’s all one-sided. There is as much emphasis placed on Filipino patriotism, the guerrilla fighters often talking about the tenacious nature of their countrymen, and how they will be subject to no one (the fact that they kind of, sort of were at the time doesn’t really enter into it). Then again, all of this does often rest as a secondary consideration to American patriotism. The Filipino peoples are just as willing to die for the American flag as their own. One scene actually has a schoolmaster hanged from a flagpole because he refuses to take down the Stars and Stripes. Now, of course this scene is more about the man standing fast against the orders of the invading Japanese soldier who tells him to lower the flag, but it does turn the schoolmaster into a martyr for the cause, a hanged Filipino man literally draped in Old Glory. There’s also another bit that I won’t give away, lest you actually see the film, but I’ll simply say that it involves a boy who never learned to spell the word ‘liberty’. Again, all this may be more my problem, but it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Flag-waving aside, the rest of the film is well done. Dmytryk’s direction does have suitably rough feel to it, with the short battle sequences feeling quite visceral for the time, and Nicholas Musuraca’s cinematography lends it that extra sense of darkness. The acting is decent, if a little melodramatic at times. Anthony Quinn carries Captain Bonifácio’s tortured self well, and John Wayne delivers the typically resolute performance as Madden. Say what you want about Wayne, he knew how to project the right screen image. So committed was he to looking the part, Wayne refused to use a stunt double for the film’s tougher scenes. Dmytryk and Barzman actually wrote in extra dangerous things for him to do, expecting him to call for a double at some point. Wayne stood fast and performed every stunt himself, including being thrown by an exploding shell (well, a harness and pulley). It’s still a bit of a shock, partly because it’s unexpected, and partly because it’s real. You can see it’s actually him being thrown to the side. He really was a pretty tough sonofabitch.
Overall, Back to Bataan is a pretty good war film, especially considering the constraints of production and the historical focus. It does suffer from a pretty in your face sense of swelling patriotic pride, which pushes the boat out a little too far more than once, but that was mostly the intention. The actual film itself is mostly well made and does pay genuine tribute to those fighting the war. It’s very interesting for a number of reasons, and mainly so because it offers such a specific glimpse into the period it was made.