Wednesday, July 22, 2015

CRACKER? Merrill’s Marauders (1962)

                “Merrill’s Marauders” is a Samuel Fuller (“The Steel Helmet”) film about the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional) that fought in Burma in WWII.  Fuller also co-wrote the script loosely based on the nonfiction book by Charlton Osburn, Jr.  Warner Brothers pressured Fuller to make the movie with the implication that it would consider making the movie he really wanted to make – “The Big Red One”.   The movie was a difficult experience for Fuller.  He wanted Gary Cooper as the lead, but ill health prevented this.  (Cooper died soon after.)  The studio angered Fuller by adding some feel good into the movie.  The movie was made in the Philippines with cooperation of the Philippine Army and U.S. Special Forces.

                The movie begins with a narrator explaining the war situation in Burma.  The Japanese had expanded into Southeast Asia in 1942 and the Allies wanted it back.  At the Quebec Conference, the Anglo-Americans decided to create a 3,000 man unit in India for operations behind enemy lines.  Gen. Frank Merrill  (Jeffrey Chandler) was given command of the 5307th by Gen. Joseph Stilwell.  In January, 1944 the unit was given the mission to destroy an enemy supply base at Walawbum.  It will be a 200 mile trek through the jungle that will take three months.
do you like watching men walk?
how about if donkeys are involved?

                This being a Fuller film, the action begins with a nifty little assault on a Japanese artillery outpost.  Rousing music backs a frontal attack with grenades and covering fire.  This is followed by a twenty mile forced march to reach Walawbum.  The focus is on a platoon led by Lt. Stockton (Ty Hardin).  He has a father/son relationship with Merrill.  He commands your typical heterogeneous small unit (although no one is from Brooklyn).  They lead the attack on a railway station.  Stock tells his men the attack will begin in 33 seconds.  He likes to be very specific.  He gives one of the men a single rifle grenade which is all he needs to take out an ammo truck.  Because he’s an American.  There are good battle sounds (much of it lots of gunfire).  The men actually reload, but the deaths are of the touchdown signaling variety.  Some of the filming was apparently done by midget cameramen which would explain the numerous upward angle shots.    End of movie since the Marauders had been promised relief after achieving their objective.  Enter Gen. Stilwell (John Hoyt). 

                Stilwell tells Merrill that they must now move on to take Myitkyana.  When Merrill points out that given the exhaustion of his unit this would be impossible, Stilwell basically tells him tough shit.  Merrill then has to break it to Stockton who informs his men via a long range shot that registers the slumping shoulders of the depressed men.  They push on through a swamp.  Trudging music.  A subplot develops involving Merrill’s heart problems.  Doc Kolodny (Andrew Duggan) is unable to stop him from killing himself.  He also has to deal with the rampant diseases like typhus.  Not to mention the lack of supplies.  When a supply drop occurs near Japanese forces, Merrill plays harsh bastard and orders his men to move on.
Stockton has his usual "you've got to be f'in kidding me" look
"Are you s******* me?!"

They reach the railway station at Shduzup.   The main fighting is in a mazelike structure that makes for a unique combat setting.  (There are no friendly casualties in the chaotic fighting because the Army insisted Fuller edit them out.)  It’s a phyrric victory as the unit has seemingly reached the end of its tether.  The doc reports to Merrill that the men are finished due to AOE – accumulation of everything.  Stilwell gives Merrill the “option” of continuing on to Myitkyina.  He decides he is not going to let anyone call him a pussy so he has to break it to Stock again.  “When you lead you have to hurt people – the enemy and sometimes your own.”  Now the march is through mountainous terrain.  Even the audience will be exhausted before they reach Myitkyina.  The survivors are faced with a last stand at the old watering hole when they arrive outside their objective.

“Merrill’s Marauders” was an obvious choice for Hollywood treatment.  After the success of “Objective Burma”, Warner Brothers was looking for a similar subject except this time without the controversy of Americans stealing British thunder.  The Marauders were fairly well known, having been press darlings during the war.  Fuller was a good choice to make the movie and his gritty style was appropriate for the subject and acceptable for a 1960s WWII movie.  In fact, Fuller wanted the movie to be even more gritty and ran into trouble with the studio over this.  The studio inserted some second unit footage to dilute the grit and tacked on a parade ground ending.  In spite of the tampering, the film is more realistic than most WWII movies.  It’s a pretty grim movie that lacks much humor.  Some of the deaths tug at you, but the movie concentrates more on the sacrifices than the mortality of the men.  The movie does a good job balancing the brass with the GIs.  You get an excellent study in command by way of Merrill and a soldier’s eye view of the campaign through Stockton and his men.  The interaction between Stilwell and Merrill and Merrill and Stockton provide both the macro view of the strategy and a micro view.
Claude Akins always gets the babes
The movie is well-acted, especially by Chandler.  It was his last role.  He injured his back playing baseball during the shoot, but insisted on continuing.  When he looks like he is in pain during the trudging scenes, it’s not all acting.  After the film was done, Chandler underwent back surgery and died under anesthesia at age 42.  Hardin is fine as the game, but questioning Stockton.  The members of the platoon include reliables like Peter Brown and Claude Akins.  Special mention to the acting by Eleanor the mule.
“Merrill’s Marauders” is a campaign movie, not a battle movie.  The combat scenes are exciting, but relatively brief.  The movie is more about the hardships the men went through.  It is clear that the soldiers were asked to go beyond human endurance and they accomplished impossible tasks.  The film is the rare war movie that spends some time on the effects of war on morale.  These guys do not want to do what ends up making them famous.  They are not out for glory.  They continue putting one foot in front of the other, but grudgingly.

SPOILER ALERT:  How accurate is the movie?  The unit was created at the Quebec Conference in August, 1943.  It was modeled after Orde Wingate’s Chindits which was conducting long-range operations in Burma.  The unit consisted of 3,000 volunteers (many of whom were veterans of Guadalcanal).  Some of them came from stockades (“The Dead End Kids”).  The unit was code-named Galahad.  They were trained in India after shipping out from San Francisco.  They then made a 1,000 mile march into Burma to be available to Stilwell.  At first the unit was used for harassing enemy supply lines and for patrolling, but then it was tasked with capturing Walawbum.  This is where the movie begins.

 They started out with 360 pack mules.  The path was through difficult jungle terrain.  They did not surprise the Japanese at Walawbum.  They had to withstand human wave attacks and heavy bombardment, but the enemy was forced to withdraw.  Stilwell then sent them to take a blocking position at Nhpua Ga.  Here they faced numerous attacks from various directions.  Dysentery and lack of supplies added to their miseries.  In spite of this, “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell ordered them on to Myitkyana across a mountain range with peaks 6,000 feet high.   There only remained 1,300 from the original 3,000.  The movie fails to show the two Chinese infantry regiments that accompanied them.  Merrill did not march with them on account of his latest heart attack.  His executive officer Lt. Col. Hunter was in command.  The trail had not been used in ten years and the biggest problem was getting the mules over it.  Lack of food (Stilwell’s decision that one K-Ration per day would be sufficient was laughable) and the fact that almost every soldier was ill caused an average drop in weight of 25 pounds. 

 The movie does not depict the numerous Japanese outposts that had to be taken and also does not show how the Marauders had mortars to use.  The air field was easily taken after an air bombardment.  Hunter was unclear if this finally completed their mission.  Gliders brought in an anti-aircraft unit instead of the infantry reinforcements necessary to take on Myitkyana.  When Stilwell made it clear they were not finished, Hunter argued that they were literally finished as a fighting force.  Stilwell responded by having the hospital combed for anyone who could still move and carry a weapon.  The movie does not go far enough in delineating what a dick Stilwell was.  The subsequent attack on the town was unsuccessful and resulted in a siege that further drained the unit.  This is when the typhus really kicked in.  At this point morale reached rock bottom.  Myitkyana only fell when Chinese forces attacked from the east.  The unit was disbanded on Aug. 10, 1944.  It had only 130 combat effectives at this point.  Of the original contingent, only two were alive and had never been hospitalized.  The unit had fought thirty-two engagements.  Hunter eulogized it as “the most beat upon, most mishandled, most heroic, and most unrecognized regimental unit in World War II.”  You can edit out “unrecognized” because of this movie.

In conclusion, “Merrill’s Marauders” is similar to “Glory” in that it brings recognition to a heroic small unit that deserved to be well-known.  It is not in a league with “Glory”, but it is respectable for a 1960s war movie.  It bucks Old School parameters enough to be gutsy in its griminess.  If Fuller had had his way, it would make my 100 Best War Movies list.  It might still sneak in.

GRADE  =  B 


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