Back to Bataan (1945): John Wayne’s War Movie in the Philippines, Instructing and Inspiring, Co-Starring Anthony Quinn

John Wayne’s paternal attitude toward the younger generation and his function as a sociological father extended beyond his relationships with American soldiers.

In 1945, the movie Back to Bataan depicts events that are inspired by actual events, but largely fictionalized, which took place after the Battle of Bataan (1941–1942) on the island of Luzon in the Philippines.

Back to Bataan
Back to Bataan.jpg

Theatrical poster

Two war films, “Back to Bataan,” set in WWII, and the Vietnam War actioner “The Green Berets,” John Wayne serves as role model to Philippine and Vietnamese children, respectively. The working title of the film, “The Invisible Army,” was dropped in favor of a more clear and direct title.

The feminist critic Joan Mellen has perceived this aspect of the films’ plots as a testament to Wayne’s screen image–and by extension to the U.S. ideology in general–namely, embodying an alarming imperialistic and patronizing attitude toward smaller, weaker nations, represented in those pictures by children.


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For Back to Bataan, Wayne was contracted to RKO Radio to play the lead, Colonel Joseph Madden, who helps the Philippine guerrillas fight the Japanese. The ensuing picture was artistically better but commercially less popular than “Bataan”(1943), a war film starring Robert Taylor that had benefited at the box-office due to the timeliness of its release (See Review).

In the course of the story, Colonel Madden develops a special relationship with Maximo (Ducky Louie), the Philippine kid who adores him. When Maximo’s father is killed, Wayne is the one to provide comfort, “War hurts everyone.”

In an earlier, quite touching scene, Madden commits him to the war effort by the symbolic gesture of handing the boy his Colonel’s insignia. He also teaches Maximo how to take orders and behave like “a real man.”

Absorbing the lessons, later on, Maximo volunteers to spy. Captured and tortured by the Japanese, he misleads them, forcing their truck over a cliff. Thus, in Wayne’s best manner, Maximo prefers to die heroically, by tricking the enemy, than to reveal important military secrets.

“Back to Bataan” originated in 1944, when John Wayne was asked by the State Department to make a movie about the Philippine guerrilla forces. This movie could not have been made without the assistance of the Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the Coast Guard, and the Philippine government, all of which were acknowledged in the credits.

John Wayne’s American Vs. Anthony Quinn’s Filippino

As in all of Wayne’s pictures, to elevate his stature, he is contrasted with another man, Captain Andres Bonifacio (Anthony Quinn) and his Filippino men. Initially, Bonifacio feels let down and betrayed by the American withdrawal from the islands, and it’s Wayne who encourages him to continue to fight heroically, when Bonifacio suspects that his girlfriend (Feli Franquelli) is a traitor for the Japanese–rest assure that she is not.

Rumor has it that there were clashes on the set between Colonel Clark, the film’s adviser, and director Edward Dmytryk, who allegedly ridiculed the former’s patriotism and Catholic beliefs. Dmytryk does not report any of these in his autobiography, though he recalls one battle with the Colonel. When the make-up and prop men dirtied the Philippines’s clothes, the Colonel reportedly rejected on the ground that they were “the world’s cleanest people.” Having served most of his career in the Philippines and one of the few to be evacuated before the surrender to the Japanese, he was very loyal to their country. According to Dmytryk, Colonel Clark had contempt for General MacArthur–unlike Wayne who had unshakable faith in him.

This was not one of Wayne’s personal favorites. In later years, he said that he didn’t like the leftist tendencies of Dmytryk and some members of his crew, all of whom became victims of HUUAC investigations during McCarthy’s witch-hunting in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Wayne also didn’t like the way that Dmytryk shot a scene in which his Colonel is blown out of a hollow by an exploding shell.

“They Were Expendable,” made by Ford and starring John Wayne and Robert Montgomery, which was released several months later and covers the same events, albeit from a different perspective, is artistically a more interesting and fully realized picture.

RKO arranged for two premieres of Back to Bataan on June 25, 1945, in Boston and Honolulu, and the movie performed well at the box-office.

Wayne’s War Films

Wayne’s war films saluted various branches of the Armed Forces. The Flying Tigers, for instance, paid tribute to the American volunteer Airmen who fought for China’s freedom. And The Fighting Seabees saluted the construction engineers of the Navy. The Hollywood war movies were so propagandistic that many ended with explicit appeal to the audience to enlist in the Armed Forces. In Pittsburgh (l942), Wayne plays an ambitious coal miner who rises to head a huge industrial enterprise, while abusing his friends and associates. He redeems himself, however, during Pearl Harbor, when every American is needed for the War effort. Pittsburgh starts as a rowdy comedy but ends as a heavy-handed government propaganda movie, stressing the nation’s interest and the part played by the coal industry in modern warfare–narrated by a voice-over quite solemnly.

What accounted the most for the popularity of the War movies was their timeliness and immediate relevancy. Director Dmytryk recalled that the initial screenplay for Back to Bataan showed “White Americans as responsible for all the heroics,” but with the help of adviser Ben Barzman, the film became both more realistic and in tune with the changing events. “While we were shooting,” Dmytryk observed, “the situation in the Pacific was changing from day to day.” For example, General MacArthur’s return to the Philippines and the prisoners’ release from the prison camp of Cabantuan had to be incorporated into the scenario.


Directed by Edward Dmytryk
Produced by Robert Fellows
Screenplay by Ben Barzman, Richard H. Landau based on a story by Aeneas MacKenzie and William Gordon
Music by Roy Webb
Cinematography Nicholas Musuraca
Edited by Marston Fay

Production and distribution company: RKO Radio Pictures

Release date May 31, 1945

Running time: 95 minutes
Box office $2,490,000


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