Set during the first stage of the Filipino theater of WWII, Bataan tells the story of an improbable group of U.S. soldiers who volunteer to hold a position at all costs, with the sole purpose of delaying an unstoppable Japanese offensive. It has been said that Tay Garnett's opus redefined the war movie genre, imposing a recipe that would be used in tens of Hollywood later films until the 70s, particularly those about WWII and Korea.
The breakthrough may not appear to those not familiar with american war films of the 20s and 30s, however it is hard not to acknowledge that the themes, character types and plot dynamics of Bataan have been used and abused in numerous movies posterior to this one. Nevertheless, this is not the side of Bataan I'll try to cover here (readers interested in this issue could read for instance Jeanine Basinger's excellent article in the book The War Film). Instead, I'd like to share the idea that this is a great early film noir: a violent and gloomy piece about lonely men trapped in a hostile environment, facing odds they know they will not overcome.
Angst out of shot
The jungle doesn't feel 'natural' at all. This isn't because the film was shot entirely on a sound stage, for adding wide-angle stock shots of treelines or mountains would have been easy. This is deliberate, reinforced by the repetitive use of dry ice to create unrealistic (but certainly fantastic) ground smoke effects. The only attempt at going back to nature, by the Filipino Morro soldier, ends up tragically. Much like the city in urban noir, nature here has simply turned to be an absolutely hostile environment, which offers no way out.
From the beginning, the violence is graphic. I can't remember any post-Hays Code movie before Bataan showing women and children being actually blown out by a bomb. Sure, the movie has its flaws notably when in comes to hand-to-hand combat sequences: the choreography is showing, much as today's action films choreographies will probably have future audiences smile. Yet, I find it remarkable that even in the most gruesome moments the camera never lingers (which is even more remarkable considering this is, after all, a propaganda piece). The film doesn't try to sugarcoat the violence, and yet doesn't fall into the trap of exploitation. It's about ethics, not realism: the effect of violence has to be shown, but there is no lesson to be learnt, except it's just the way it is.
No place for love
But there's more in the matter of noir style than just the isolation and the violence: rage. Robert Taylor gives a performance as great as it is unexpected (if you remember him from his appearances in the 30s). He goes from tough to hard-boiled to furious throughout the movie, and yet there's some kind of integrity developing . It isn't sentimental nor righteous. As if once all hope has been lost, a steady rage was the last way to remain human. An almost ethical, elegant rage (which by the way doesn't only affect Taylor's character, but also Lloyd Nolan's who in a memorable scene with Robert Walker towards the end refuses to give up to sentimentality). The rage, which goes litterally in the viewer's face in the last scene, is why beyond all the propaganda figures in the film, including the utterly racist treatment of the enemy, Bataan still tells us something today about modernity.
Although seminal for the genre in characterization and narrative, this film is in my eyes an oddity. My guess is it succeeded in making propaganda out of a crushing military defeat precisely because its style reached beyond the genre, echoing a spirit that would only become obvious in later years (and in far more civilian settings). Tay Garnett's career was uneven to say the least, but if you loved his Postman Always Rings Twice - which had the same cinematographer and editor - I think you'll thoroughly enjoy this one as well.
PS : special mention to Bronislaw Kaper's low-key but haunting musical score, which perfectly fits the mood of the film.
Bataan at imdb.
DVD edition (Warner) & others