Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

02 October 2013

BATAAN - A Movie as Big as Its Name

Finally got to see Tay Garnett's Bataan, a WWII movie that Metro released in 1943. It is famous for its brutal portrayals of violence in the 1940s. Although because of the code, films were not usually allowed to show certain things: an excess of blood as well as sounds of violence, including screams of pain, were usually not allowed.

Bataan has everything. It's almost shocking how violent this is for 1943 Hollywood. The film is worth a watch simply for that. The film stars Robert Taylor as a hard-bitten sergeant. His right-hand man is the great character actor Thomas Mitchell. And there are great performances from George Murphy, Kenneth Spencer, Lee Bowman, Desi Arnaz, and especially Robert Walker. Taylor, the shiny movie star of later big-budget features like Ivanhoe and Quo Vadis? is incredible here: contained, strong, and curt, never the grandiloquent performer he is in those giant '50s movies.

Mr. Mitchell as Feingold
Garnett's movie is based on John Ford's 1934 WWI movie The Lost Patrol, or if it isn't, it is surely indebted to it. The films work the same structurally, but whereas The Lost Patrol feels frustrating and futile, Bataan feels like a creepy film noir made in the middle of the jungle. The sound stage on which it is filmed comes to feel claustrophobic, madness-inducing, and the performances are just stellar.

Mr. Walker as the Sailor
The violence is the main show, here, but there are also some superb explosion effects, and the ending is absolutely perfect. Even better, Garnett has at least three sequences in the film where the soldiers simply wait for things to happen. He tells the audience what is going to happen and then he allows time just to run. We watch and wait and wait and wait, and the tension that the director is able to create with these sequences is absolutely extraordinary. I was on the edge of my seat.

This film is superb. A gem of a war movie from the 1940s that never got its due.