Wed 24 Feb 2016
BATAAN. MGM, 1943. Robert Taylor, George Murphy, Thomas Mitchell, Lloyd Nolan, Lee Bowman, Robert Walker, Desi Arnaz, Barry Nelson. Director: Tay Garnett.
Although there are a few brief moments of levity, Bataan is overall a rather bleak portrait of men in wartime. Filmed on set and released in the midst of the Second World War following the notable defeat of U.S. forces in the Philippines to Japanese Imperial forces, Bataan is a brooding, claustrophobic movie and one notably bereft of flag-waving patriotism or uplifting musical fanfare.
With a solid cast, one that features Robert Taylor and Lloyd Nolan in starring roles, this combat film is hardly one of the very best, but it remains a gripping and poignant reminder of the grim realities of modern warfare. The quasi-mythical plot is something straight out of The Alamo. A ragtag group of misfits from various American ethnic groups under the command of a surly leader, Sgt. Bill Dane (Robert Taylor), are forced into a last man standing suicide mission. Low on supplies and fatigued by war, they have been tasked with the nominally impossible mission of blowing up a bridge to slow the oncoming Japanese advance.
Making matters even more complicated is the threat of malaria and the fact that one man in the unit (Lloyd Nolan) may be hiding a secret from his past, one that involves his past interactions with Sgt. Dane.
Bataan works best as a gritty combat film. Indeed, the action sequences are particularly memorable. The same, however, cannot be said for much of the dialogue, a lot of which feels artificial and stilted. The lack of women in the film is also particularly noticeable, making this film really more about male friendship in the face of imminent death than anything else. This is a man’s world, one replete with danger, and, even though there is a brief allusion to a romantic subplot, it’s one that is never developed.
That’s actually for the best, as it avoids the pitfalls of far too many war films that have included some sort of romance to either offset the realistic violence or to appeal to a female movie going audience. Bataan is about men in wartime, all of who know that death lurks just around the corner in the steamy, tropical jungles that fate has chosen to ensconce them.
BATTLE OF THE BULGE. Warner Brothers, 1965. Henry Fonda, Robert Shaw, Robert Ryan, Dana Andrews, George Montgomery, Ty Hardin, Pier Angeli, Barbara Werle, Charles Bronson. Director: Ken Annakin.
For a war film that runs nearly three hours long, Battle of the Bulge unfortunately ends up feeling surprisingly incomplete. That’s not to say that there aren’t some great scenes and solid performances by a well known cast; rather, it’s just that the movie, when viewed in its entirety, doesn’t leave the viewer with a particularly compelling reason why this particular combat film is so much better, or so different, from others that came before it. The fact that the film isn’t particularly historically accurate doesn’t help matters, either.
Directed by Ken Annakin, a craftsman known for his work in the British comedy genre, Battle of the Bulge was both photographed and exhibited in 70mm, providing the motion picture a truly larger than life glimpse of combat and ferocious tank battles. With an all-star cast, including Henry Fonda, Robert Ryan, Dana Andrews, Charles Bronson, and Telly Savalas, it’s difficult not to enjoy the movie for these fine actors’ presences alone. Add to that an exceptional performance by Robert Shaw as a fervent German tank commander and you’ve got an enviable ensemble of top talent.
Even so, the movie just doesn’t have enough tension or compelling subplots to make it a particularly memorable combat film. In some ways, it feels as if all these fine actors where merely going through the motions, playing their parts well but not giving their characters distinct idiosyncratic personalities. We never get a real sense of how the war has truly affected the American soldiers we are supposed to root for. And without that, Battle of the Bulge ends up being interesting to look at and engaging enough to continue watching until the end, but comes across a little too much like a documentary, or at least an historical recreation component of a documentary, for its own good.