Yes, Back to Bataan is flag-waving agitprop. Yes, it features Anthony Quinn as a Filipino. But under the direction of Edward Dmytryk it’s all done really well. There are a number of gripping battle sequences, and John Wayne in his late 30s was still a lean, mean, ass-kicking machine. The human drama is a little stilted and the politics are simplistic, but when the bullets are flying, Back to Bataan delivers the goods.
The film begins with a battle sequence that depicts the raid at Cabanatuan, a Japanese POW camp, that took place on January 30, 1945. At the time the film was made, the raid was a current event, and was one of the big Allied successes in the Pacific theater. (Filipino guerrillas, Alamo Scouts, and US Army Rangers liberated more than 500 prisoners of war.) After the big opening battle, the film moves back in time to 1942, and tells the story leading up to the raid and the freeing of the POWs. Col. Joseph Madden (Wayne), voluntarily stays in the Philippines after Gen. Douglas MacArthur and his armies pull out. Madden teams up with Filipino guerrilla forces, training them and organizing them. One of his officers, Capt. Andrés Bonifácio (Quinn) is struggling to live up to the reputation of his grandfather, who was a national hero and liberator of the Philippines from Spanish colonial rule. And if that weren’t enough, Capt. Bonifácio’s former fiancée, Dalisay Delgado (Fely Franquelli) has apparently turned traitor, since she now makes regular radio broadcasts radio for the Japanese. Every time he’s near a radio, Capt. Bonifácio has to hear his sweetheart’s mellifluous voice spouting ugly Axis propaganda. Madden, of course, knows that Delgado is actually passing code through these broadcasts, but he’s ordered by his superiors not to tell Bonifácio, so Madden must use all of his skills as a commander to whip Bonifácio into shape and make him a leader of men, no matter how much Bonifácio’s heart may be breaking.
There are conflicting reports of how well Wayne got along with director Dmytryk and screenwriter Ben Barzman, both of whom had communist views. According to Barzman’s wife, they had a humorously antagonistic relationship due to their very different politic views, jokingly calling each other “goddamned communist” and “fascist.” Apparently Barzman and Dmytryk also enjoyed tormenting Wayne, who refused to use a stunt double, by devising scenes that would test his limits. Whether or not this was a friendly game, the results are sometimes stunning. There’s a scene in which Wayne is hugging the ground. A shell explodes right next to him, and his body is flung high into the air and dropped at least 20 feet away. If you rewatch the scene, you can see the wires attached to Wayne’s body, but during the first viewing, when you’re not expecting it, it’s a stunning effect.
The film ends with triumphant footage of some of the real men who were prisoners of war at Cabanatuan. They march together, filmed at low angles, while their names, ranks, and cities of origin are displayed on the screen. After seeing so many Hollywood actors playing soldiers in World War II, it’s interesting to see some of the real men who served. Some of them are handsome enough to have played in the movies. Some aren’t. Almost all of them look relieved and happy, but close to being emaciated. All of them, that is, except for one guy from Chicago who’s really fat and looked deliriously happy. I wonder what his secret was.