Monday, May 28, 2012


A fitting film for Memorial Day in more than one sense, Samuel Fuller's fact-based account of a grueling American incursion into Japanese-occupied Burma self-consciously honors the memories of the men who fought but was also, without actually saying so, a memorial to its star, Jeff Chandler, who died of complications from a back injury suffered on the Philippine location a year before the movie's release. He didn't hurt his back while the cameras rolled, but apparently endured an ordeal of pain for the remainder of the shoot in some ways comparable to that portrayed in the picture. Chandler finally submitted to surgery back home, but died from it. He made his name in movies, after some success in radio, playing the milestone heroic-Indian role of Cochise in Delmer Daves's Broken Arrow (1950). I always found Chandler unconvincing in period or ethnic parts -- he's one of Hollywood's most unconvincing Arabs in Flame of Araby, for instance -- but that limitation doesn't pose a problem when he plays a hard-boiled general with a heart condition who drives himself the same way he drives his men, despite the advice of the standard-issue compassionate medic (Andrew Duggan). When Merrill finally suffers a (non-fatal) heart attack just before the finish, it's as if Fuller were projecting Chandler's demise. It must have been an awful yet moving sight for his fans when the film first came out fifty years ago next month, but the film holds up now without the morbid fascination it must have exerted in the summer of '62.

Fuller's film is more an ensemble piece than a Chandler star vehicle. Warner Bros. clearly considered it a showcase for its young contract talent from television: Ty Hardin (Bronco), Peter Brown (Lawman) and Will Hutchins (Sugarfoot), while Fuller treated it as an audition for The Big Red One, which he hoped to make with Warners' money immediately afterward. Despite the quirks given each of the lead soldiers, Merrill's Marauders is a less character-driven film than the one Fuller finally made in 1980. The characters don't really rise above types and tics, and one soldier's tragicomic attachment to the company mule is just corny, but you could argue that this sort of war movie needn't be and maybe shouldn't be character-driven. Fuller's eye for dramatically framed action drives the film, and he gets maximum value for his dollar in the Philippines. The battle scenes are nicely staged, though some of them were apparently shot for other pictures and cut in by cost-conscious Warners. The most pictorially intriguing is a skirmish at an oil refinery constructed almost like a labyrinth, punctuated by a post-fight walk by a soldier across the tops of odd structures almost shaped like coffins on top, as bodies lay below. But I was most impressed by a more quiet scene. The exhausted troops are resting in a liberated village. The villagers offer some of their meager food to the hungry Americans. An old woman brings a small bowl to a bearded, barely conscious Claude Akins, who seems to be Fuller's substitute for his usual dogface alter ego Gene Evans. She and her child pantomime that the stuff is food that you eat, but Akins seems too tired even to eat. Finally the child takes a handful of the stuff and puts it in Akins's mouth. At that point, with the compassionate old woman hovering over him, Akins bursts into tears and finally starts to feed himself. You don't expect it from Akins, one of the great tough-guy character actors of the era in film and TV, but it feels utterly spontaneous and you understand without further explanation why he's crying. That's the sort of bonus Fuller brings to his war movies and the sort of thing that makes them worth watching for people who don't like war or war movies in general.

The original trailer has spoilers or history lessons, depending on your perspective. It comes from the Turner Classic Movies website.


RVChris said...

Nice review. I actually met a veteran who was part of Merrill's Marauders and mentioned this film. Unfortunately he didn't say how close his experiences were to the film. I missed it on TCM but will have to watch it sometime.

Samuel Wilson said...

Thanks for writing, Chris, and for reducing my degrees of separation from the actual events a little.