The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Merrill's Marauders

After reviewing a heavily anti-war movie yesterday, I thought it was only right to counter today with a different look at war and soldiers in a more heroic light.  The 1960s were full of war flicks that focused on real-life military units, like 1968's The Devil's Brigade that dealt with the First Special Service Force, and then for a change of pace here, 1962's Merrill's Marauders in the Pacific theater of WWII.

Directed by WWII vet Samuel Fuller, Marauders tells a mostly factual story of the 5307th Composite Unit (provisional), dubbed Merrill's Marauders after their commander, General Frank Merrill. This was a fighting force of 3,000 American volunteers with experience in jungle warfare after years of island-hopping across the Pacific on places like Guadalcanal, Bougainville, and many others. Fuller doesn't try to present the Marauders as a unit of Superman-like soldiers who can't be defeated.  These are men pushed to their physical, emotional and mental limits as they undertake a near-suicide mission late in WWII.  Heroes of course, but Fuller isn't going to shove any rhetoric down your throat.  Here's the story, and if you don't like it, tough.

Early in 1944 as the advantage shifts toward the Allies in WWII, the 5307th Composite Unit marches into Burma from India with a dangerous mission, get behind enemy lines and walk 125 miles undetected in Japanese territory to knock out a key Japanese supply base.  Commander Brigadier General Frank Merrill (Jeff Chandler) is at the lead, pushing his men every step of the way. The mission is a success if a costly one, but it's only the start.  The Marauders are ordered to continue on, marching further into the Burmese jungle on their way to an essential airfield at Myitkyina where they will link up with British forces.  Out in front leading his scout platoon, Lt. Stockton (Ty Hardin) begins to see the men wear down but somehow continue on, ready for whatever awaits them.   

Telling the story of the Marauders, Fuller puts together a fast-paced, full of action story that never slows down, even in the moments following the firefights as the men wait for orders.  With backing from the U.S. Army, Fuller films his story in the Philippines which does a fine job filling in for Burma.  Much of the movie is filmed in dense jungle, giving a feel of what trudging through such horrifically dense landscape would be like.  Howard Jackson's musical score borrows some from 1945's Objective Burma! but stands well on its own, supplying a driving pace at times that balance out the softer moments as the Marauders cope with their situation.

Chandler tragically died at the age of 42 before this last movie of his was ever in theaters, a shame because of how good his performance is.  Never a huge star, he was a class professional, and makes Merrill a red-blooded character, an officer who knows he must sacrifice some of his men if the Allies ever hope to win the war.  Difficult decisions, but he knows the end result will prove it all worthwhile.  He has a father-son relationship with Hardin's Stock, the platoon leader who struggles dealing with the ever-increasing casualties among his men.  Joining the platoon is Bullseye (Peter Brown), the sharpshooter, Kolowicz (Claude Akins), the tough but fair sergeant, Muley (Charlie Briggs), the mule driver with his pack animal Eleanor, Chowhound (Will Hutchins), the platoon a-hole, and Taggy (Filipino star Pancho Magalona), a Filipino volunteer. We get to know little to nothing about these men, but by seeing their actions, as viewers we get a strong sense of who they are as people.  The personal background would be a wasted effort.

Certain moments can bring a war movie up a notch or two, and it doesn't require an epic battle or a heroic sacrifice.  Here, it comes following a bloody battle at a railyard.  Stock walks over cement posts where the heaviest fighting took place, the bodies mingled together so closely it is impossible to tell who was American and who was Japanese.  It is one long tracking shot as Stock surveys the battle silently, Jackson's score playing softly.  A few minutes later, Akins -- in a career-best performance -- is offered food by a young boy and his grandmother.  They're just offering a cup of water and a bowl of rice (very little in the grand scheme of things), but Akins' Wolowicz breaks down, the exhaustion taking over of months behind enemy lines.  These are the moments that stick with you more than anything else, the mark of a truly moving story.

With his lightning quick pacing, Fuller covers a ton of ground in just 97 minutes. The studio made certain cuts -- including a slightly different ending -- giving the story a sometimes disjointed feel, but it never distracts for long.  The battle sequences sound like toy guns instead of real guns (Fuller opted for blanks instead of sound effects), but they're shot so well you hardly notice minutes in.  The movie ends on a positive note, asking the question that's been brought up the whole movie by Doc (Andrew Duggan). Men on the brink of exhaustion after months of fighting with limited supplies, how do they do it?  They did it because they had to.  A great, underrated WWII movie well worth catching up with.

Merrill's Marauders <---trailer (1962): *** 1/2 /****

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