Back to Bataan

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Back to Bataan is a 1945 American black-and-white World War II war film drama from RKO Radio Pictures, produced by Robert Fellows, directed by Edward Dmytryk, that stars John Wayne and Anthony Quinn.[1] The film depicts events (some fictionalized and some actual) that took place after the Battle of Bataan (1941–42) on the island of Luzon in the Philippines. The working title of the film was The Invisible Army.[2]


In 1945 US Army Rangers raid the Cabanatuan Japanese prisoner-of-war camp, rescuing its POWs. The film flashes back to March, 1942, and the Bataan peninsula in the Philippines.

As U.S. Army troops under General MacArthur struggle to hold on at Bataan against the Japanese, Colonel Joseph Madden (John Wayne) orders one of his officers, Captain Andrés Bonifacio (Anthony Quinn), to shape up. Bonifacio has been under a strain because his sweetheart Dalisay Delgado (Fely Franquelli) is apparently collaborating with the Japanese, broadcasting propaganda over the radio.

Later, Madden is picked to slip through the lines to organize Filipinos to fight as guerrillas against the Japanese occupation. His commanding officer lets him know that Delgado is actually using the propaganda broadcasts to secretly transmit valuable information to them, but he is ordered to reveal that fact to no one, not even Bonifacio.

Madden makes contact with one group of Filipino resistance fighters, but as they set out on their first mission, they encounter middle-aged American school teacher Bertha Barnes (Beulah Bondi). She and her students join the guerrillas after the Japanese hang Buenaventura Bello (Vladimir Sokoloff), the principal of her school and a dear friend, for refusing to take down the American flag.

Setting out on their first mission to destroy a Japanese gasoline dump, Madden and his men stumble upon the Bataan Death March and realize that Bataan has fallen. Many of the Filipinos lose heart, so to boost their will to fight, Madden finds and engineers the rescue of Captain Bonifacio from the Death March. Bonifacio happens to be the grandson of Andrés Bonifacio, a national hero. It works. For their first mission, the guerrillas go to the Filipino village and hang the Japanese officer who ordered the killing of Bello. During the next year, Madden and his guerrillas attack Japanese outposts, supply depots, military airfields, and other installations.

Major Hasko (Richard Loo), one of the Japanese commanders, attempts to appease the local population by staging a semi-independence ceremony to reduce popular support for the Filipino resistance. Madden, Bonifacio, and the guerrillas attack the ceremony, where Dalisay finally reveals her true alliance during her radio broadcast: She urges her people to rise up against the Japanese. Most of the Japanese troops are killed in the raid, but a young Filipino boy named Maximo Cuenca (one of Barnes' students) is captured. After being beaten, he agrees to lead the Japanese to Madden's hideout. However, as they near that spot, Maximo, sitting in the front seat of a Japanese transport truck, suddenly grabs the steering wheel, sending it careening down a mountainside. He later dies in the arms of Miss Barnes.

Colonel Madden is ordered out of the field, leaving Captain Bonifacio in command of the Filipino resistance. Several months later, in October 1944, Bonifácio and his group travel to Leyte, where rumors are circulating of the impending American invasion to liberate the Philippines. After arriving on a beach in Leyte, Bonifacio is reunited with Madden who has arrived by submarine along with Lt. Commander Waite (Lawrence Tierney), a U.S. naval officer. Waite tasks Bonifacio and Madden with a mission of taking and holding a small village to block Japanese reinforcements from repelling the impending landing of American forces that are due within 24 hours.

By trickery, Madden, Bonifacio, and their men engage and defeat the Japanese garrison in a fierce pitched battle. Two enemy soldiers, however, get away on a motorcycle and spread the alarm. Japanese tanks and soldiers attack. The defenders manage to knock out most of the tanks, but are on the verge of being forced to retreat. Just when all seems lost, American reinforcements and tanks arrive and turn the tide of battle.

The film ends with another short montage, this time showing several of the actual released Americans from the Cabanatuan prison camp.


As the film opens, the credits roll over actual film clips from January 30, 1945, of POWs being freed from Cabanatuan, a Japanese prisoner of war camp.[3]


Producer and future production partner of John Wayne Robert Fellows had previously made two war films with fictional characters based on true incidents in the War in the Pacific: Bombardier, based on the Doolittle Raid, and Marine Raiders. He also produced the John Wayne western Tall in the Saddle for RKO. Fellows strongly believed that an account of the initial defeat and guerilla resistance of the American and Filipino forces, as well as MacArthur's return, would be a splendid tribute and a profitable film. Fellows contacted the Office of War Information, and the American military also agreed and provided their assistance.[4]

The film took 130 days to shoot because of the rapidly changing Pacific war news of the time. Two thirds of the way through filming, the invasion of the Philippines occurred, forcing several script changes and rewrites in order to keep up with current events.[5] The Raid at Cabanatuan and release of American prisoners was also rapidly incorporated into the screenplay, with scenes recreating the 6th Ranger Battalion attacking the Japanese prison camp. This action sequence is placed at the beginning of the film, while there are appearances by actual, recently released, American POWs inserted for dramatic effect at the end.

Ben Barzman's screenplay emphasized Filipino nationalism as much as American patriotism. A Filipino school principal, who reminds a Filipino schoolboy of Philippine nationalism, is later ordered by the Japanese conquerors to take down the American flag in the schoolyard. When he refuses to do so, the Japanese hang him from the same flagpole, his body draped by the stars and stripes.

During the action sequences, the soundtrack reuses large sections of Max Steiner's classic film score for RKO's King Kong (1933). In another small section of the score, the British national anthem is also used.

Back to Bataan was Wayne's first encounter during the filming with Americans with open Communist sympathies and beliefs. Barzman and director Edward Dmyrtyk were outspoken about their communist views.[6] When Wayne heard that Barzman and Dmytryk were openly belittling the religion of the film's technical advisor, Colonel George S. Clarke (who had commanded the 57th Infantry Regiment of the Philippine Scouts during the Battle of Bataan and was roughly Wayne's real life counterpart), and mocking him with renditions of the Internationale, he confronted Dmytryk, asking him if he was a communist. Dmytryk replied that he was not, but if "the masses of the American people wanted communism, it would be good for our country".[7] Though Dmyrtyk denied he was a communist, Wayne felt that he was by his use of the word "masses".[8] By contrast, Barzman's wife Norma recalled Wayne being friendly with her husband, with Wayne hugging him and calling him a "goddammned communist", to which Barzman jokingly replied that Wayne was a "fascist".[9]

During filming, Dmytryk and Barzman found out that Wayne had refused to use a stunt double. So they collaborated in writing scenes that they thought would force Wayne to insist on using a stunt double. Wayne was required in one scene to be lifted into the air by a leather harness, simulating being blown up by an explosion. In another, Wayne and Quinn had to enter an icy pond and remain underwater for a lengthy time, each breathing through a reed. Wayne did the stunts, but as he drank a bracing whiskey beforehand, he told Barzman, "You better be goddamn sure we don't find out this is something you dreamed up out of your little head as a parting gift".[7]

In her book The Star-Entangled Banner, author Sharon Delmendo views Back to Bataan as Wayne acting as a stand-in for General Douglas MacArthur. He has to face the wrath of his Filipino officers asking him "where are the American forces?" He is later ordered to leave the Philippines only to return, like MacArthur, when the invasion finally happens.[10]

See also

  • Bataan is a 1943 film about a small rearguard defending a bridge against the Japanese, starring Robert Taylor and Lloyd Nolan.

Further reading

  • Fojas, Camilla (2014). Islands of Empire : Pop Culture and U.S. Power. Austin: University of Texas Press. ISBN 9780292756304. , esp. pp. 44–54.
  • Hawley, Charles V. (2002). "You're a Better Filipino Than I Am, John Wayne: World War II, Hollywood, and U.S.-Philippines Relations". Pacific Historical Review. 71 (3): 389–414. doi:10.1525/phr.2002.71.3.389. JSTOR 10.1525/phr.2002.71.3.389.


  1. Crowther, Bosley. "Back to Bataan", NY Times. 
  2. Back to Bataan (1945): Notes. Turner Classic Movies.
  3. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; no text was provided for refs named AFI
  4. p. 258 Roberts, Randy and Olson, James Stuart John Wayne: American 1997 University of Nebraska Press
  5. p. 115 Davis, Ronald L. Duke: The Life and Image of John Wayne 2001 University of Oklahoma Press
  6. p. 98 Munn, Michael John Wayne: The Man Behind the Myth 2004 Robson Books
  7. 7.0 7.1 p. 260 Roberts, Randy & Olson, James Stuart John Wayne: American 1997 University of Nebraska Press
  8. John Wayne as the Last Hero. Time (August 8, 1969).
  9. Hollywood: the red and the blacklist.
  10. p. 83 Delmendo, Sharon Back to Bataan Once More Pax Americana and the Pacific Theatre The Star-entangled Banner 2004 Rutgers University Press