Is this Samuel Fuller’s biggest production? He tries to convey the harrowing reality of a military campaign that tested the limits of endurance and punishment that troops could absorb. In his last movie, Jeff Chandler is the famed commander who must ask his special forces to march hundreds of miles in the unforgiving jungle, and then fight a pitched battle. Although Warners interfered with the final cut, it’s still a fine picture.
Warner Archive Collection
1962 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic widescreen / 98 min. / Street Date July 23, 2019 / available through the WBshop / 21.99
Starring: Jeff Chandler, Ty Hardin, Peter Brown, Andrew Duggan, Will Hutchins, Claude Akins, Luz Valdez, John Hoyt, Pancho Magalona.
Cinematography: William Clothier
Film Editor: Folmar Blangsted
Original Music: Howard Jackson
Written by Milton Sperling, Sam Fuller from a book by Charlton Ogburn Jr.
Produced by Milton Sperling
Directed by Samuel Fuller
Writer/producer/director Samuel Fuller must have welcomed the opportunity to work with Milton Sperling, a big independent producer with a remarkable career history. Sperling married into the Warner clan, but most of his early productions were for Fox. He kept personal ownership of many of his Warner Bros. productions, which is why big pictures like The Enforcer strayed from Warner ownership.
Fuller reportedly took on the big-scale war picture Merrill’s Marauders because Jack Warner said, that if it did well, he might get a green light for his personal dream project The Big Red One, the story of his own infantry outfit in North Africa and Europe. But he felt that a project about one of the most honored special combat groups of WW2 was more than worthy. The Fuller/Sperling project was soon plagued by problems. Gary Cooper was cast, but fell sick and soon died of cancer. Able replacement Jeff Chandler undertook the physically demanding movie despite suffering from terrible back issues. The actor weathered the hostile shooting conditions only to return to the states and die, at age 42, from complications from a botched surgery to repair a back problem.
Warners were not pleased with Sam Fuller’s rough cut. They didn’t want Fuller’s vision, but another gung-ho recruitment-bait picture like Sperling’s Retreat, Hell!, and they made changes. Calling one of his battle scenes ‘too artistic,’ they revised it with reshoots. They also dropped his original final scene, the emotional payoff for the Frank Merrill story. The point of Fuller’s screenplay was to avoid war-movie glamour, but Warners tacked typical rah-rah montages onto the opening and closing. The director shouldn’t have been surprised that the U.S. Army didn’t endorse his personal view of combat and war in Merrill’s Marauders. Back in 1950, the Armed Forces had tried to suppress Fuller’s first big hit, The Steel Helmet, for daring to suggest that our soldiers were not Boy Scouts, and can fight plenty dirty when they need to.
Despite the studio meddling, few viewers find anything wrong with Marauders. Critics don’t give it enough credit in Sam Fuller’s filmography because it isn’t politically audacious, and doesn’t showcase the director’s flamboyant tabloid sensibility. China Gate attracts more attention for Fuller-philes, who dote on its eccentric, cartoonish mix of politics and pulp melodrama. The more realistic Marauders hews closer to the core Samuel Fuller, the ‘eternal infantryman’ among postwar Hollywood directors. It’s one of the better films about extreme combat situations, and shows Fuller perfectly capable of doing well with material not of his own devising. Despite its success at the box office it did not lead to more studio deals for its writer-director. Ironically, the film is now best known as the last appearance of its leading player. Jeff Chandler was publicly mourned at the next year’s Academy Awards, before obituaries were a common theme of the ceremony.
Sam Fuller’s adaptation of a true WW2 military campaign has no romantic subplots. It begins in the midst of fighting in Burma. Brigadier General Frank D. Merrill (Jeff Chandler) leads a division of assault specialists through the Burmese jungle to cut off supply routes for the Japanese in Indochina. After a costly victory, the unit waits to be disbanded, only to learn that the hard-pressed General Stilwell (John Hoyt) needs them to march hundreds of more miles to attack a second objective. Merrill has a heart condition and his troops are exhausted, but they continue by putting ‘one foot in front of the other.’ Lt. Lee Stockton (Ty Hardin) is already a surrogate son to the general, and leads the point platoon in more than one encounter. After a devastating second battle at the Shaduzup railhead, Merrill has no choice but to follow orders and command his men to proceed to yet a third objective, Myitkyina, to relieve British troops. Some of his men drop from exhaustion. Doctor Kolodny (Andrew Duggan) claims that the commander won’t live to finish the trek, but Merrill pushes on.
Merrill’s Marauders is a refreshingly straight combat film. Fuller populates his show with colorful characters, but by casting unfamiliar faces and stressing the tough reality of the mission over theatrics, he assembles a surprisingly modern show. Merrill’s soldiers volunteered for one campaign and ended up taking three major objectives scattered over hundreds of miles of malaria-infested Burma. Fuller keeps the war movie clichés to a minimum — his show has almost no broad comedy, and no sad sacks talking about buying the farm back home. The men bicker, but always on a practical plane: “Stay away from my ammo!” One napping soldier wakes up from an unhappy dream and barks out at his pal to, “Stay away from my girl!” The man in charge of the pack mule takes on the animal’s load when it falls in exhaustion. Soldiers are called Bullseye (Peter James) and Chowhound (Will Hutchins) but their characters aren’t reduced to the level of their nicknames. The closest the film comes to a Fuller-like character tirade is Taggy (Pancho Magalona), a Philippino soldier and interpreter who takes abuse from nobody and vows to destroy the Japanese tyrants.
Fuller’s soldiers march, eat and fight, and do little else. Merrill reluctantly takes his orders from General Stilwell and then, as a good commander must, pushes his men beyond endurance. Ty Hardin’s dedicated officer Stockton withdraws when Merrill is forced to make unreasonable demands on the men. Unlike later cynical films such as The Bridge at Remagen, the division must sacrifice beyond all reason not because some officer wants a medal, but because the job must be done, and nobody else is available to do it.
The fighting details are all Fuller; he likely consulted on the differences between his European experience and the hardships of jungle warfare. The assaults are quick and savage. The soldiers use smoke and grenades to soften up their targets but have to do much of the killing at close quarters. Desperate to take a major objective by surprise, Merrill has his men drop their packs, rush twenty miles and immediately engage in a pitched battle. Fuller stresses the utter exhaustion of it all, so much so that the Army (which provided much assistance) later complained that the film didn’t have enough ‘recruitment flavor.’
The unglamorous theme of exhaustion takes over in the second half, when soldiers literally die in their tracks in mid-trek. One soldier can’t resist retrieving food dropped by parachute, after Stockton determines that Japanese defenders are probably waiting in ambush. The scene compares favorably to a similar, rather strained setup in the later A Bridge Too Far. The general pushes on even when the doctor says he’ll surely kill himself with overexertion. Sure enough, just before the final assault Merrill keels over while exhorting his stricken troops to get on their feet. Stockton takes over, not as a hero but as a leader finishing an unpopular, necessary job. Warners contractee Ty Hardin made few exceptional pictures but is a good fit for this role — as a solid dogface infantryman, the kind that Samuel Fuller understood.
Also standing out is John Hoyt as General Stilwell, the area commander who had to send the Marauders on such a terrible, big risk assignment. Hoyt isn’t as tall as Stilwell, but he’s beautifully made up to match the man seen in a newsreel clip seen in the opening montage. It’s the same historical figure played in straight man / comic mode by Robert Stack in 1941.
A key close-combat battle is a crazy, suicidal nightmare fought in a railroad yard with an Escher-like maze formed by concrete supports for fuel tanks. This is the scene that offended Warners and the Military — Fuller reportedly panned across the awful combat as if it were a mural, stepping back from direct involvement. Fuller showed Americans inadvertently shooting each other, admitting that the confusion and chaos of combat results in plenty of friendly fire mistakes. The ‘heroic’ reshoot made the scene more palatable as a public relations commercial for recruitment.
That said, the finished Shadazup railroad yard scene looks plenty chaotic to me … it seems obvious that the shooting frenzy could easily become indiscriminate.
I recommend watching Merrill’s Marauders most strongly for the sequence right after the battle, which for me is Sam Fuller’s most moving. The survivors sprawl about asleep or in a stupor, too exhausted to eat or even move. Stockton shares an almost wordless, intensely gentle encounter with a wounded Burmese girl (Luz Valdez), who he carries to an aid station. Their interaction has the honest feel of a documentary. Some Burmese approach the soldiers with food. One of them, Sgt. Kolowicz (Claude Akins) cries openly and silently as an old woman and young boy feed him rice. Kolowicz reminds us of Sgt. Zack from The Steel Helmet, but with his defenses down. He’s grateful beyond words, and perhaps overwhelmed by the pressure and the violence.
As Fuller explains in his colorful autobiography A Third Face, Jack Warner simply threw out the script’s bittersweet ending, in which the stricken Merrill, having collapsed, misses the final battle. When he awakens, he’s told that his second-in-command followed through for him. Merrill won, but personally he’s been left behind. The message is still that the infantry is a team, and that even a commander can be replaced
Again, the military wouldn’t accept anything downbeat, and as finished the film ends with an abrupt dissolve to an irrelevant shot of soldiers marching in a parade. Jack Warner had plenty of experience mangling movies by accomplished filmmakers. Billy Wilder’s The Spirit of St. Louis was gutted throughout for other reasons, but the replacement ending chosen by Warner is identical to that of Marauders — a kiss-off dissolve to a celebratory parade. Milton Sperling’s earlier production Cloak and Dagger, directed by Fritz Lang, fell victim to the same kind of political second guessing at Warners. In that case the dropping of a final sequence neutered the movie’s entire reason-to-be. (I encourage reading my irate discussions of these studio manglings.)
Samuel Fuller’s career had many highlights after Merrill’s Marauders but he lost some of his momentum working in TV and turning out critically lauded but relatively obscure pictures like The Naked Kiss. The gentle scenes in Merrill’s show that he could still make a wider range of movies than just action films and topical shockers. (Opinion) Had Jack Warner not been such a rubber stamp for the military, Fuller might have proceeded right away to his dream project The Big Red One, instead having to wait twenty years and film it on a shoestring.
The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Merrill’s Marauders puts William Clothier’s beautiful cinematography on display. The anamorphic movie (Warnerscope?) never seems redundant, even though 95% of the backgrounds are the same Philippine forest and jungle locations. We’re told that one of the battles is supplemented with stock footage from 1955’s Battle Cry.
Although the studio meddling described by Fuller is disconcerting, additional lasting damage was done by the rah-rah contingent at Warners. The film’s patriotic, upbeat music score often runs counter to Fuller’s story of struggle and over-exertion. Like a cheerleading section, the music takes us out of the movie, reminding us that victory is ahead and that heroic medals await all. We’re surprised that the over-taxed Merrill doesn’t have a nervous breakdown, asking Ty Hardin, “Can you hear that music? We’re going to win, I tell you!”
Presumably because Jeff Chandler was sick and unavailable for looping, a couple of his dialogue lines have been dubbed by another actor. (Thanks to Dick Dinman for reminding me of this.)
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Very Good
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: July 23, 2019
Text © Copyright 2019 Glenn Erickson