Monday, May 28, 2012


I know the writer and director Samuel Fuller mostly through his scruffy B-movies (THE CRIMSON KIMONO, THE NAKED KISS) but this film shows what he could do with a bigger budget and full studio backing--although, unsurprisingly given Fuller's reputation, he fought with Warner Bros. over this film before it was released and that was pretty much the end of his A-movie days. Shown on TCM's Memorial Day weekend lineup, this WWII film is based on the true story of a volunteer special forces unit in Burma under the command of General Frank Merrill. According to this film, the specific mission of the 3,000 men was to sneak through jungle and mountains to attack an important Japanese supply base in Walawbum. After that success, however, General Stilwell, worried about the possibility that Japan will invade India and meet up with German forces, asks Merrill to take his men further. Each time the men, depleted not just by casualties but also by sickness, hunger and mental strain, believe they'll be on their way home, Merrill keeps pushing them on to one more objective.  The film consists of battle scenes (guns and hand-to-hand) interspersed with bits of the stories of the men as they trudge on.  

Fuller, who fought in WWII, made movies that both glorified the American soldier and showed clearly the insanity of war. This film's weight is on the glory side, though there are a couple of effective downbeat scenes, one of scattered bodies of the dead, another of dozens of wounded and exhausted men hoping desperately for relief but instead being rallied to go on, for balance. Jeff Chandler plays Merrill in his usual somewhat wooden fashion, but the movie really belongs to Ty Hardin (of the hit TV western Bronco) as Stockton, Merrill's second-in-command. Hardin (pictured above to the right of Chandler) does a fine job going from fully engaged assistant and "cheerleader" for the men to something of a dispirited nemesis to Merrill. Still, in the clutch near the end of the movie, when Merrill has a non-fatal heart attack while trying to muster the men to move on, Stockton knows what his duty is and performs it. A handful of other characters come alive: Peter Brown (above top with Hardin) as the feisty Bullseye, Will Hutchins (another TV cowboy) as the young Chowhound, and Charles Briggs as Muley, the keeper of Eleanor, a pack mule. Briggs provides both comic relief and tears. Perhaps the most powerful moment in a movie full of explosions on battlegrounds is when rough, tough Claude Akins begins crying uncontrollably when a native woman offers him her rice. The action is not nearly as graphic as the war films of today, but this is still very much worth seeing.  Years later, Fuller got to make the war movie he really wanted to make, THE BIG RED ONE. [TCM]

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