8 August 2005 | mercybell
Gutsy but intimate and intelligent film-making
War movies can be a tricky recipe to pull off because they've been done so often and fall into clichés sooo easily. This film was saved by bravura and sincerity. It's a good film. What at first may seem like a generic Duke vehicle quickly exposes itself as a small ensemble drama on an epic stage.
Part of the appeal of this film is to watch it with history in mind. It tackles a lesser known part of WWII history, the war and guerilla movements in the Philippines. This film is totally unselfconscious in how it deals with the war, in one scene it features real Bataan POWs marching in a parade and introduces them documentary style with a narrator, and it hired Filipino extras and actors for important roles. This is what really touched and surprised me, how it elevated and glorified Filipino nationalism, culture, and history (Jose Rizal and Andres Bonifácio are frequently quoted and reverently referred to throughout the film); and, in an age where African American actors still were unfairly stereotyped and Asian actors almost nowhere to be found in Hollywood films, this treated Pinoy characters as equals and as heroes. This openmindedness on the part of the filmmakers was refreshing, but very reflective of the US fighting men's appreciation of the contributions of the Filipino people.
The film is passionate about the people it portrays. It's common for wartime films to be full of propaganda and overly zealous, but this film is more touching and intimate in its approach. Patriotic speeches actually have meaning and tears behind them, swelling music doesn't feel manipulative, no doubt because it was filmed with so many soldiers and civilians involved and in 1945, these people had just gone through all this and everything is done with a real and raw memory. It feels like it's built on real stories and people, and the actors seem to know they're not dealing with run of the mill cutout characters. There's a sincerity inherent in all of their performances because of the immediateness of the subject matter. John Wayne is less gruff than usual (and even downright dashing). Anthony Quinn's confused young man: brooding heartbrokenly when he's away from his informant fiancée, tender when he's around her, not sure how to fulfill what many feel is his destiny, and his own personal journey is lovely. Beulah Bondi (as a teacher evacuee who helps the men out) teary eyed when she thinks of her students; the motley crew mix of American GIs and Pinoy volunteers who surrounds the two officers, casual and down to earth. It's a tight cast in a friendly fight to upstage the others, and you'd better believe they milk every scene for what it's worth.
The film moves along quickly and realistically. Instead of complicated plot movements and intricate bloated twists, the story seems like it was taken from any number of jungle war experiences which makes it fascinating and unpredictable, like real history. Director Edward Dmytryk, later blacklisted, paid no heed to Production Code regulations for violence, and filmed scenes that were fairly explicit (for the time) in their portrayal of cruelty and violence inflicted on soldiers and civilians in an attempt to realistically dramatize some of the atrocities that occurred during the war which lends the film an air of impending danger and gravitas.
From before the era of ambiguous and complex war stories (which is how I usually prefer my war flicks to be served), this one of the best "classic" war films I've ever seen. (If you like this, check out "An American Guerilla in the Philippines" which was shot on location by the great Fritz Lang in 1949/50 and very similar in many regards.)