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Merrill's Marauders may be director Sam Fuller's biggest studio production, a large-scale war epic filmed on location in the Philippines. Set on telling the story of his own infantry outfit in North Africa and Europe, Fuller at first resisted Jack Warner's offer to dramatize a campaign in a different theater of war. He signed on to film the factual saga of one of the most honored 'provisional' combat groups of WW2, with the implied promise that The Big Red One would come next.
The movie isn't given enough credit in Sam Fuller's filmography, probably because it doesn't showcase the director's flamboyant tabloid sensibility. It's one of the best films about extreme combat situations, and shows Fuller perfectly capable of doing well with material not of his own devising. Merrill's Marauders is also noted as the last film appearance of star Jeff Chandler, who weathered the hostile shooting conditions only to fall, at age 42, to complications from a botched surgery to repair a back problem. Chandler was publicly mourned at the next year's Academy Awards, before obituaries were a common theme of the ceremony.
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 very 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 continually sacrifice 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. 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 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, and 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 doing an unpopular, necessary job.
Even if war movies don't appeal, I recommend watching Merrill's Marauders to catch a sequence that's perhaps the most moving Fuller ever did. The troops take a railroad yard, engaging in a crazy-suicidal close combat in an Escher-like maze formed by concrete supports for oil tanks. Fuller's idea of showing confused Americans shooting each other in the chaos was struck down by the studio, a detail that supports the idea that most war films are indeed public relations tools for the Pentagon. After the fighting the men sprawl about asleep or in a stupor, too tired to eat or even move. Stockton has an intensely gentle scene with a wounded Burmese girl (Luz Valdez), who he carries to an aid station. Their interaction feels so honest, that we take it at face value. Some Burmese women and children approach the soldiers with food. One of them, Sgt. Kolowicz (Claude Akins) cries openly and silently as an old woman feeds him rice. Kolowicz reminds us of Sgt. Zack from The Steel Helmet, but with his defenses down. He's both grateful beyond words and seemingly ashamed for his role in the world's violence.
As Fuller explains in his colorful autobiography A Third Face, Jack Warner chopped off the script's bittersweet ending in favor of an irrelevant shot of soldiers marching on a parade ground. The cop-out finish is easy to ignore.
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 shows that he could have made any kind of movie he wanted to, with a range wider than action films and topical shockers. If Jack Warner kept up his end of the deal 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.
Warners' DVD of Merrill's Marauders is a beautiful enhanced transfer of the CinemaScope film, with great color. The only extra is an interesting trailer hosted by the film's technical advisor Lt. Colonel Sam Wilson, who served with General Merrill. Subtitles are provided in English and French. We're told that one of the battles is supplemented with stock footage from 1958's Battle Cry.
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.)
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Merrill's Marauders rates:
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