War Movie Mondays: ‘Merrill’s Marauders’

This week’s pick is another cinematic masterpiece from acclaimed director and combat veteran Samuel Fuller (Fixed Bayonets, The Steel Helmet). Merrill’s Marauders (1962) tells the story of Brig. General Frank Merrill and his American jungle fighters in Burma during World War II.  What makes this film so unique from the bravado of similar war pictures that came out of Hollywood in the pre Vietnam early nineteen sixties was that it was based on actual events. The film stars Jeff Chandler (Brig. Gen. Frank Merrill), Ty Hardin (Lt. “Stock” Stockton), Claude Atkins (Sgt. Kolowicz), John Hoyt (General Joseph Stillwell), and Peter Brown (“Bullseye” a platoon sniper).

As World War II spread throughout the Pacific theater, there were intense campaigns in Asia from northern China, to the borders of British held India which the Japanese coveted for its natural resources, as well as adding it into their vastly expanding Asian empire. British Viceroy to India Lord Louis Mountbatten (uncle to Prince Charles), had devised many covert Anglo-American military units to harass and to thwart any attempt for an invasion of India by Japanese forces.

Major General Joseph “Vinegar” Stillwell fought the Japanese for the entire duration of the war in Asia with the combined forces of the U.S., Great Britain, Burma, Indo China, and Chinese battalions under the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai Sheck. To this day, Stillwell is the only American General to have ever commanded a Chinese army in battle. He is still revered in China as a hero who ousted the Japanese from Chinese soil. Most of these events were largely forgotten in history books, and were overshadowed by the many campaigns in the Pacific and European theaters of operation. Only the honest, unflinching story telling magnitude of Sam Fuller could bring such a movie to the big screen.

The film opens up in the traditional Hollywood fashion, news footage of “the big picture” with narration to tell the audience about the story they are about to see. The film gives praise to the British as well as other allies, but avoids mentioning the Chinese army which eventually went communist and ousted many of the pro democracy forces under Kai Sheck which fled to Taiwan after World War II when Mao Tse Tung’s forces seized control of the government.

Not surprising, Fuller was very anti-communist and would not mention China’s contribution to the war effort. The film then opens up showing Merrill’s forces as they continue to harass and bring the war to the aggressors. Merrill and his three thousand troopers of the 5307th Composite Unit endured disease, malnutrition, and combat fatigue which has already taken its toll before the movie starts to get going. These men fought in some of the most challenging terrain in the world and were quickly feared and respected by the Japanese.

My personal favorite part of the film which is beautifully shot is the attack on the Japanese rail-head at Shaduzup which contains many maze-like concrete structures that the Marauders and the Japanese fight in at close combat. In several scenes, Fuller uses many medium and close up shots of bodies piling up in this maze as the Americans try to take it from the dug in Japanese defenders. Cinematographer William H. Clothier (fresh from his work on John Wayne’s The Alamo), uses fantastic shots and filters on the lenses to create a splendid technicolor, CinemaScope feast for the eyes.

After the battle, Merrill and his men are pretty much broken after this terrible battle and sit around in shock and awe. Claude Atkins (Sgt. Kolowicz) finally breaks down and sobs as a women and other Burmese natives emerge to give the jungle fighters food as a token of their appreciation for driving out the Japanese.

Merrill believes that now that this vital position has been captured he and his unit can be moved to the rear for R&R. General Stillwell informs him that his men must push even further into the jungle to take Myitkyina “mitchina”, a Japanese airfield which is wreaking havoc on allied forces. Merrill explains to Stillwell that his men are incapable of another action and that it can’t be done. Lt. Stockton (Hardin) pleads with Merrill that most of his men are veterans of the Philippines, and South Pacific campaigns who were promised that they would be able to return home after this one mission. The fatherly Merrill looks to Stockton as a son and tells him that he is a leader “and sometimes leaders have to hurt people”. Stock then leaves dejected that he and his men must push on through more hellish terrain in order to finally go home after one more volunteer mission.

As a director who always made a profit, Fuller approached Warner Bros. with his dream project which wouldn’t be made for another eighteen years, The Big Red One. Producer Milton Sperling called in Fuller to help write and direct Merrill’s Marauders because Fuller was a real life World War II combat vet and would do the picture justice with its brutal honesty and depiction of war. If the film was a success, Jack Warner promised to help Fuller with the finances for The Big Red One. Merrill’s Marauders became a commercial success for WB and Fuller was eventually promised his dream project after some fights with the studio over scenes which were banned for their brutal nature or because they were considered too artistic.

Sadly Merrill’s Marauders was actor Jeff Chandler’s last film. He suffered from back problems throughout the production which registered on his face throughout filming in the Philippines. He would eventually die from blood poisoning after an operation back in the U.S.

Merrill’s Marauders is a fantastic, realistic war film that pulls no punches and shows just how brutal of a campaign it was for the Americans who fought in Burma in World War II. Fuller was censored, ordered to re-edit many scenes that the studio executives believed were too much for audiences in nineteen sixty two. Fuller summed up the film perfectly in a documentary for The Independent Film Channel The Typewriter, the Rifle, and the Movie Camera (1997) That war is when pieces of an individual are put together in order to make a body for burial.

He wasn’t content in just showing scenes where actors are hit with a bullet and shout “I’m hit” while holding their stomach and gracefully falling down. When you are killed in combat, pieces of you are flying off and it is the ultimate example of man’s cruelty to one another in war.

Merrill’s Marauders is available on DVD through Warner Bros Home Video. and can be rented through Netflix.

  • Harley_wind48
    January 5, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    As a combat Marine grunt of the Vietnam war, I can strongly relate to this well made realistic movie

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