If ever there was a unit that needed a nickname it was the “5307th Composite Unit (Provisional)”! If Brigadier General Frank D. Merrill (1903-55) was as hands-on slogging through the jungles and over the mountains of Burma as Jeff Chandler (1918-61) portrays him in the 1962 Warner Brothers celebration “Merrill’s Marauders,” that moniker was apt. ((The “provisional” indicates that the unit is formed for a special mission or operation and will be disbanded after its completion… and there were only 103 soldiers of the original three battalions of 3000 volunteers left to be reassigned.)
Merrill trained them and led them on a 90-day trek behind enemy (Japanese) lines to attack the Japanese after which they were to be relieved by British troops (and disbanded). Gen. “Vinegar Joe” Sitwell, commander of the relatively minor US forces in the western front of the war with Japan flies in and orders the exhausted and malaria-riddled 5307th on to attack Myitkyina in the far northeast of Burma (the Kachin state) a railroad hub as well as a hub for the road by which the Japanese planned to attack India. (In the movie, Merrill’s Marauders take Myitkyina by themselves in one swoop, though in reality there was a prolonged siege by Chinese (Kuomintang) and the British-Indian “chindits” were also involved.)
Director Sam Fuller had been an infantryman in Europe during World War II and wanted to film his own platoon’s story. He had already written the script for what many (18) years later would be “The Big Red One,” and made two of the best Korean War movies (Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets) and was not interested in making the jungle attrition movie in the Philippines. Though US Army officials had been very unhappy with the portrayal of US soldiers killing prisoners in “Steel Helmet,” Warner Brothers received co-operation from both the US and Filipino armies in making “Merrill’s Marauders.” (The US Army was displeased by the well-documented disregard for the health of the marauders and the failure to supply them with adequate rations, and succeeded in getting showing GIs shooting other GIs in the Shaduzup maze deleted.)
Gritty for its time, the movie shows Merrill’s determination and refusal to heed his attending physician’s (Andew Duggan) judgment that (he and) the men were not fit for combat. His protégé Lt. Stock (Ty Hardin) is in Merrill’s view too close to his men, though Stock soldiers on after Merrill refuses to relieve him of command of his vanguard platoon. Chandler was not just acting being in pain (Merrill had a second heart attack while on the mission) but was in pain from a back injury. Surgery (malpractice) on that killed him before the release of the movie.
In comparison to the two Korean War movies, I thought there was little characterization of the fragile cogs in the war machine. In common with many American war movies, it is a puzzlement that Japan conquered so much territory, including driving Merrill’s regular army unit out of Burma in the first place. Every direct encounter results in Japanese soldiers being killed with relative ease. There is only one in which the outcome is close (it involves a second American bayoneting the Japanese solider in the back). And on the scale larger than hand-to-hand combat, the Japanese flee from every attack. Even the Japanese snipers are easily picked off by a single US sharpshooter’s shot.
The movie incorporated battle footage from “Battle Cry.” Other than the censored Shaduzup maze (tank trap) sequence, there was nothing of particular visual note. On the other hand, there are none of the lapses of basic moviemaking competence that occur in most other Fuller movies. I don’t blame him for the music (Howard Jackson gets that), because I don’t think he had final cut authority. I’d like to think he wasn’t responsible for the epilogue, either.
There is one touch of Fuller black humor: Gen. Merrill is visiting the outdoor field hospital. The soldier being worked on opens his eyes and belligerently asks: “Who are you?” Merrill responds:”Merrill, who are you?” The feverish soldier asks “Did Lewinsky make it?” (I don’t remember his name and it isn’t in the credits.” He then drops back dead. Merrill a repeats the now-dead man’s question. The surgeon replies “He was Lewinsky.”
The movie provides no background on the politics that made Gen. Joe Stillwell to need an American contingent fighting in northern Burma. A British group passes through, but there is no indication that the British were involved in taking the rail depot at Shaduzup or that the marauders were not the main attack force at Myitkyna air field (that was the Chinese Expeditionary Force) on 15 March 1944 or that the the Japanese held on to the town of Myitkyna until 3 August (when 800 Japanese retreated from the town) long after the surviving marauders had been flown out. British troops were also involved at Myitkyna. The failure to show that there was anyone by marauders at Mytikyna is more than typical American ethnocentrism but part of a larger effort to valorize only the US military in winning World War II. It seems likely that the Mytikyna air field would have been taken if the exhausted marauders had not undertaken the arduous march across the Muzon mountains (the movie shows this being mostly swamps, though some Philipinne mountains do appear) and ended their expedition back at Shaduzup. They were exhausted, but Stillwell needed some Americans at the climactic battle (Myitkyna). Eighteen years later, Warner Brothers made it look like the remnants of the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional)”! took Myitkyna. (That they were sacrificed for the ego of Gen. Stillwell and jockeying among Allied commanders does not detract from the heroism of the infantrymen who went on long past the point of exhaustion.)
The epilogue celebrates the Special Forces marching on (actually the rows looked ragged to me!) is jingoism at its worst, encouraging the hubris of increasing US military involvement in Southeast Asia, first with the Special Forces who were particularly doted on by President John Kennedy (who, among other things, encouraged wearing of green berets, which had been banned, and began their combat involvement in Vietnam). Though the movie shows exhaustion and sickness felling US soldiers in droves, the end stresses a sense of omnipotence that encouraged more military adventures (even under the shadow of the stalemate in Korea).
©2018, Stephen O. Murray