Back to Bataan: John Wayne–Role Model to Children in War Movies

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

In two war films, “Back to Bataan,” set in WWII, and the Vietnam actioner “The Green Berets,” John Wayne serves as role model to Philippine and Vietnamese children, respectively.

The feminist critic Joan Mellen sees this aspect as a testament to Wayne–and by extension the U.S.–imperialistic and patronizing attitude toward smaller and weaker nations.

Fo “Back to Bataan,” Wayne was contracted to RKO to play Joseph Madden, the colonel who helps the Philippine guerrillas fight the Japanese in a picture that was better but less popular than “Bataan”(1943), a war film starring Robert Taylor that benefited from the timing 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 and falls under the tutelage of an American teacher (Beulah Bondi). When Maximo’s father is killed in battle, Wayne is the one to provide comfort to the boy, “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 Wayne was asked by the State Department to make a movie on 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.

As in all Wayne pictures, to elevate his stature, he is contrasted with another, weaker man, Captain Andres Bonifacio (Anthony Quinn) and his Philippino 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

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 Wayne, which was released several months later and covers the same events, albeit from a different perspective, is a much better picture.

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.