Starring 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.
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.
Merrill’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.
Merrill’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.