Merrill’s Marauders (1962)

MerrillsMarauders_1Starring Jeff Chandler, Ty Hardin, Peter Brown, Andrew Duggan, Will Hutchins, Claude Akins, Luz Valdez, John Hoyt, Charlie Briggs

Directed by Samuel Fuller

Expectations: Moderate. I don’t expect much from this one.

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Is Merrill’s Marauders a poorly made film because it’s not wholly engaging and entertaining, or is it the perfect film for the story because it slowly drains viewers of their energy and enthusiasm, perfectly placing us into the shoes and the minds of the infantrymen? The film is a great example of the struggles asked of the men on the front line, and it feels cheap to discredit it because it’s hard to watch. Fuller wasn’t interested in entertainment, he was interested in truth, and in that he succeeded. I just wish I had seen Merrill’s Marauders sooner, before I became so enamored with his later, similar & better film The Big Red One.

Merrill’s Marauders opens with a newsreel playing over the jungle of Burma. The reel’s narrator informs us of the broad struggles in the region during World War II, eventually coming to the fact that a large group of American soldiers were sent to retake Burma in order to stop the Japanese army from reaching India and hooking up with the Germans. Maybe I’m just young and naive, but I had no idea that WWII stretched into these countries, so I found it very interesting. In any case, the story behind Merrill’s Marauders is a true one, but it’s not one near and dear to Fuller’s heart. He was brought onto the project, and accepted it with the hope that he’d be able to make The Big Red One next, a film he’d been trying to get made since the 1950s.

MerrillsMarauders_2Merrill’s Marauders may not be on par with other Fuller efforts, but it captures the endless struggle of the infantry soldier exceptionally well. The patriotism and macho heroism that typifies a good many classic war films is largely missing. Hungry, tired men trudge through the swamp, afflicted with typhus and malaria. They don’t know what day of the week it is, and when they encounter some girls, the men only have enough energy to note their presence. At one point, when they reach an area where they are supposed to receive an air drop of food and supplies, Merrill tells the famished men to move along because the enemy will be drawn by the parachutes. So on they march, finding some small amount of inner strength and holding firm to it the best they can.

Not all of the men make it. The group is large and Fuller doesn’t focus too much on any of them. A couple of characters are given more screentime, but I wouldn’t say that these men are any more important than the ones they don’t show a lot of. As time goes on and they become increasingly tired, their personalities are even more stripped away. If you aren’t paying specific attention to who’s who (which is hard in this movie), by the end of the film you basically have no idea who anyone is besides a couple of the main characters. But that’s kind of the point. They are all dogface infantry soldiers, and their struggles are one and the same.

In his book A Third Face, Fuller relates that his original ending also focused specifically on this aspect. When the Doc asks Merrill how these men survived and continued on with so many odds stacked against them, Merrill was to reply, “They’re infantry.” It’s a PERFECT ending to this movie, but thanks to the studio heads, we’re instead given some tacked-on stock footage of a military parade that doesn’t ring true at all. For a film focused on providing harsh realities and gritty truths, it’s a travesty that the closing moments of the film are robbed of their meaning. And just as a side note, this is yet another reason why A Third Face is essential reading for any Fuller fan.

MerrillsMarauders_3Merrill’s Marauders sees Fuller return to color and the CinemaScope widescreen framing, but the visuals here are largely a disappointment, especially after the impeccable Underworld USA. The film is set completely in the jungles of Burma, so it’s a given that green will be a predominant color, but Merrill’s Marauders is so green that it’s almost monochromatic. Nearly every color in the film is some hue of green or brown. This is accurate and essential to telling this story — echoing the dehumanizing aspects of the infantry itself — but I can’t help but be a little bored by it. Fuller’s framing is also not quite up to par with his better work, but there are genuinely gorgeous moments here and there, such as a battle amongst huge concrete fuel tank supports, or an interesting sequence when the men encounter a group of peaceful Burmese natives.

Merrill’s Marauders may be a minor film in the Fuller canon, but it is a harrowing look at war from the director, made with skill and an eye for the truth. It also feels rather bold for a movie to portray WWII in this unpatriotic manner. I imagine the Burmese setting allowed Fuller some freedom to show a different side of the war, something he definitely wouldn’t have gotten if he had accepted Darryl F. Zanuck’s offer to direct The Longest Day. I’m glad he stuck to his principles and chose this path instead, as without Merrill’s Marauders I don’t know that The Big Red One would’ve been as good as it ultimately turned out to be (after its reconstruction). Like my opinion of Shock Corridor, I like Merrill’s Marauders a lot more after the film is over than while it is playing. It’s an interesting one, for sure, and one that stands out as a film unafraid to depict the front line experience as it actually was.

4 comments to Merrill’s Marauders (1962)

  • Phil

    You bring up an interesting question whether this movie is poorly made or a perfect film. I saw this film before reading A Third Face and upon my initial viewing I would lean to the former. However, after reading Fuller’s book I revisited this one and liked it much more and now leaned towards the latter.

    I think making the viewiers feel similiar to how the on screen characters feel is exactly the kind of reaction Fuller would strive to get from his audience; even if the entertainment level is sacraficed a little bit.

    I’ve read mix reviews about Merrill’s Marauders so I was curious how you would absorb it. I, too, made the mistake of seeing this after The Big Red One, and his other war movies. I enjoyed the film but wish Fuller’s ending was green lit as he had wished as it would have gone better with the theme of the film.

    Overall, Good film and a story I was unaware of but this film should probably be reserved for the Fuller enthusiasts or WW2 buffs.

    • I read A Third Face as I go, so I see each movie with as little knowledge about them as possible. My first thought while watching it was that it was OK, kind of an action movie with no defined characters. As it went on, it sapped my energy and I went through a range of emotions. In the hours after, I thought about it as a whole and I read the chapter on it in A Third Face, and it was only then that I started to like it a lot. I definitely think a re-watch would cement this fact too.

      I agree that Fuller isn’t so much concerned with entertainment in his war films, he’s all about conveying truth and cutting through the bullshit. That’s true of all his stuff to a degree, but his war films really lean towards this aspect of his style. I’ve also read some mixed reviews, and I can understand both sides. It’s definitely one for the Fuller fans and WWII buffs, but it feels like a good film for discussion, like in a classroom setting, because of its structure and its subversion of the typical Hollywood action-adventure, patriotic war movie.

      As always, thanks for your comments!

  • It’s always interesting how some films “settle” in the mind after they’ve been seen. It’s the main reason I try to delay my review of a movie at least one day after I’ve seen it.

    I haven’t seen this one yet, unfortunately. It’s been on my to-see list for a while, though I can’t remember what caused me to put it on there to begin with. Glad to hear it’s reasonably decent.

    • Yeah, the review delay is always a good idea. I try to write immediately after, but then I wait a couple of days before I look over it and edit it, so if I do it right I get both my initial reactions and the distilled down, “a few days later” versions.

      Hopefully you like it if you see it. It’s definitely not near the top of Fuller’s filmography, though. I’d recommend seeing some of his other films first before diving into this one, as it can be rather challenging.

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