“Bat 21" (citywide) has a couple of strikes against it from the start. Because it’s based on the real-life ordeal of U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton, shot down over enemy territory during the Vietnam War, we know going in that he lived to tell his story. Indeed, he served as the film’s technical adviser. It’s also a safe bet that he isn’t going to be rescued right away, otherwise there would be no movie.
So it’s no surprise at the film’s end when we’re told that the colonel did fulfill his dream of retiring near a Tucson golf course. The jolt is that we’re never told what happened to the incredibly brave and implacable black captain who sustained Hambleton’s spirits via radio contact while plotting his rescue. After all, he’s the film’s real hero.
According to a Tri-Star spokesman, the reason is that Danny Glover’s Capt. Bartholomew Clark is a composite of nearly a dozen men who participated in the actual rescue operation, most importantly a captain named Dennis Clark. You have to wonder why the film makers didn’t simply fictionalize the entire incident. They could have preserved their suspense and still saluted the close bonds that develop between Hambleton (Gene Hackman) and Clark, who know each only through their radios and by their code names, Bat 21 (Hambleton) and Birddog (Clark).
Much is made of the fact that Hambleton, a military intelligence expert who must not be taken prisoner, has never really seen war up close before. Yet you can’t seriously doubt that a smart, rugged guy like Hackman will be able to take care of himself.
Hackman and Glover, both powerhouse actors, do give the film their considerable best, with Hackman showing us the revulsion he experiences when he’s forced to kill for the first time and Glover managing to keep the saintly Clark human. Director Peter Markle, working from William C. Anderson and George Gordon’s adaptation of Anderson’s book, does a clear, straightforward job and handles adroitly the formidable logistics of a war picture staged in verdant, remote Borneo locales.
But for all the serious efforts on the part of all involved, “Bat 21" (rated R for the usual war-film bloodshed) doesn’t rise above the routine.