“Texas to Bataan” (1942)
Texas to Bataan (1942)
Directed by Robert Emmett Tansey
Written by Arthur Hoerl (co-writer of Tell Your Children/Reefer Madness, 1936)
Running time: 56 min.
Starring John “Dusty” King, David Sharpe, Max Terhune and “Elmer,” and Marjorie Manners.
This is a classic low-budget “B” movie Western with a hybrid twist I found surprising even though I knew it in advance. The film is #17 in the 24-part “Range Busters” series produced by the prolific “poverty row” studio Monogram Pictures.
The “Range Busters” are a trio of continuing characters: singing cowboy John “Dusty” King, stuntman David Sharpe, and comic Max Terhune with his talking dummy “Elmer.” In this installment, they’re working on a Texas ranch, rounding up stray horses and caring for the herd. One day they receive an urgent assignment from Washington, D.C.: help transport several hundred horses from the ranch to the American cavalry in the Philippines.
Shortly before leaving, the trio discovers a band of spies trying to steal the horses to prevent shipment abroad. But they prevent the theft and deliver the horses safely. In the Philippines the trio is able to smash the spy ring, which they discover had been run from Tokyo. They return to Texas just in time to hear the shocking radio announcement that Pearl Harbor has been bombed. At the end of the film, they ride off to enlist in the Army.
Westerns are about as old as American cinema itself, and they remained a favorite movie genre up until the early 1960s. The time frame of the Western is usually the latter half of the 19th century, before automobiles and paved roads. The reliably uniform Western movie visuals over the years, from the wide-open spaces to the wooden towns, to the hats, shirts, boots, guns and horses, are defining elements of the genre. They give us the paradoxical feeling of a timeless world lost in the past. Most of the “Range Busters” movies are set in this world.
But Texas to Bataan offers something surprising – it shifts the time period from the Old West the present (1941) in a subtle and clever way.
As the film opens, the three cowboys are sitting under a tree singing an affectionate song to their ponies. When I looked at their outfits and horses, I couldn’t tell whether it was supposed to be 1880 or 1940. And because I knew the title and the film’s description, I suspected that the film would play with this uncertainty somehow.
After singing, our heroes get bored and ride across the range to do some target practice. We see them lined up, firing their six-guns in an emotional and determined way, but we don’t see their targets. The film draws out this shooting action for about thirty seconds, making us more and more curious. What are they shooting at?
Finally, the film cuts to the targets, which we see leaning against the corral fence: posterboard drawings of Hitler and Mussolini! On a purely visual level, I found it almost shocking to see cowboy hats and six-guns in one second, and images of World War II villains the next. The moment is all the more surprising because this is the first movie in Range Busters series to jump the time scale from the Old West to the modern world. Other cowboy trios, such as the Three Mesquiteers, would follow suit to help with the war effort, and the Range Busters would return the following year to fight Nazis in “Cowboy Commandos” (1943). But at this point in this film, it was quite unexpected.
The film’s nautical sequence is also unexpected. It also communicates some American wartime symbolic propaganda. In a sequence that’s very odd for a Western, we see the cowboys supervising a cargo crane that loads horses onto the carrier ship. Then they take off over the waters. As the ship makes its way from Texas to Bataan, the film charts its progress with boldface titles expanding across the screen, war-movie style:
GALVESTON, HAVANA, PANAMA, HONOLULU, WAKE, GUAM, PHILIPPINES
I found it significant that the cargo ship travels to these stopovers in an east-to-west direction. Most of these regions were American colonies at the time the movie was made. The ship’s westward course mirrors the “Westward Ho!” expansion on the American continent from the East Coast to California.
When the ship docks in Bataan, our heroes head to a tavern for some refreshment. They find just the right place. The tavern not only serves as the local spy headquarters, but it also features a trio of Filipino singers with guitar and bass. And sure enough, they know the good ole American song “Home on the Range,” which gives our lead singer Dusty King another chance to sing!
I enjoyed “Texas to Bataan,” and I’ll keep my eye out for others in the “Range Busters” series.