Tag Archives: Samuel Fuller

A slog across northern Burma ad majorem gloria of US Army generals

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.)

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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.)

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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

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Samuel Fuller’s Long-Suppressed Masterpiece,”White Dog”

The gruff, cigar-chomping Sam Fuller (1912-1997) has long been a favorite of auteur theorists, particularly French ones, as a maverick writing and directing movies in his own, distinctive way. I think that he was sometimes a bad writer of dialogue and usually a very good director of actors and actresses. He recurrently examined the pathologies of American racism, and not just the black-and-white binary, but also including Asians, most notably in “The Steel Helmet” (1951) and “The Crimson Kimono” (1959), and Native Americans in “Run of the Arrow” (1957). The most searing of all was Trent, a black man (Hari Rhodes) in an insane asylum who had internalized the hatred spewed by the Ku Klu Klan and conceived of himself as a klansman in “Shock Corridor” (1963)

At least Trent was the most searing portrayal of racist pathology before the title character in Fuller’s last American movie, “White Dog,” which was made in 1982, but did not have a US release until 1991 and a 2009 Criterion Edition DVD with very interesting recollections by Fuller’s widow Christa Lang (who has a small but memorable part in the movie as a veterinarian’s nurse), Curtis Hanson (who adapted Romain Gary’s novella and then worked with Fuller in revising the script… before going on to direct movies such as “LA Confidential” and “Wonder Boys”), and producer Jon Davison (who had more commercial success with “Robocop”). In addition to intercutting interviews with those three, the DVD disc also includes a text interview with dog trainer Karl Lewis Miller (who took the part of a would-be rapist in the movie and went on to the animal-training work in the “Babe” movies). The booklet includes essays on Fuller and “The White Dog” by J. Hoberman and Armond White and an interview of the dog imagined by Fuller himself.

The movie

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Criterion has also managed to release a very good-looking (albeit very 1970s-looking) print, shot by Bruce Surtees (Lenny, High Plains Drifter), with a very fine score by Ennio Morricone heightening suspense and pathology.

Setting up the main story takes a while and is somewhat klunky (as I already said, Fuller sometimes was an inept writer, though some of the blame for this probably should be assigned to Hanson).

An actress whose house in the San Fernando Valley seems rather opulent for her less-than-stellar career, Julie Sawyer (Kristy MacNichol, who is skimpily dressed through most of the movie), hits an all-white German shepherd on a dark road. Ascertaining that the dog is alive (and blocking both lanes of a blind curve…), she takes it to a veterinarian. The nurse (Lang) tells Julie that only puppies are adopted, but that if she advertises the lost dog its owner might come forward.

With her vacuous screenwriter boyfriend (Jameson Parker) she posts signs on utility poles (that would certainly blow off, since they are only stapled at the top and bottom…).

The dog attacks a rapist, endearing itself to Julie. Her boyfriend recognizes that she has an attack dog that is dangerous and urges that it be put down. Then it wanders off and attacks a black man driving a street-sweeping vehicle and returns to Julie, who washes off the blood without any apparent curiosity on how her dog came to have all that blood on him.

After having visited the dog pound and watched one dog being put down, Julie takes the dog to an animal-training facility run by Carruthers (the ever crusty and herein charming Burl Ives). The dog attacks a black employee. Carruthers’s main trainer, Keys (Paul Winfield), the son of two anthropologists, has a mission in life to find a way to recondition dogs trained to attack black people.

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In two earlier instances, he managed to decondition “white dogs” attacking blacks, but they instead attacked white people (this is what the trainer in Gary’s story that originally appeared in LIFE magazine aimed to do). Keys believes that if he can succeed in salvaging one of these “white dogs,” that will discourage training others (a liberal hope, though running into conservative results).

The dog (actually, there were five white dogs playing the part) is ferocious. He certainly scared me — and often! Fuller included juxtapositions of the dog’s point of view (low) with that of Keys and Julie, as well as showing more objective shots of the deprogramming (and a very good one of Julie, Keys, and Carruthers having dinner when a policeman appears). Apparently, Paramount executives hated the dog POV shots and shelved the finished product, judging the focus on racism (the whole point of Gary’s story and novella and Fuller’s movie!) too incendiary. They wanted a horror movie, a sort of “Jaws on Paws.”

As I said, the attacking dog is plenty scary, and Ennio Morricone exacerbated this as well as John Williams did the shark in “Jaws” IMO.

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It is astounding that anyone could have thought the movie was racist rather than anti-racist, but, despite Fuller’s track record, the movie was denounced before anyone had seen it by the NAACP., which also threated telecast.  It was released (and made money) in Europe, but did not play at all in the US until 1991 (when it was acclaimed by critics, but still not given any general release). Criterion has done right by the movie and made many earlier Fuller movies available.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Korean War movies

Quite apart from its sizable tv audience, I’d guess that the 1970 movie “M*A*S*H” (the acronym for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) is both the best known and most popular film about the American military in the Korean conflict (1951 to be more exact), and the only successful comedy, however black a comedy it is.

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Soon after it, I became a major admirer of the work of its director, Robert Altman, but could not share the general enthusiasm for “M*A*S*H” — not because of its gallows humor (which was actually quite mild) or its flouting of hierarchy and convention (also quite mild), but for the expectation that the audience would join the film’s physicians in finding sexual harassment delightful (and even good for the harassed). I also could never muster much enthusiasm for Donald Sutherland as a leading man, though he was cast as one by some estimable directors during the 1970s. I found Elliot Gould funnier than Sutherland in “M*A*S*H.” Altman clearly found him more simpatico (maybe because Gould refused to support Sutherland in attempting to get Altman fired during the shooting).

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“M*A*S*H” takes place in a field hospital. I don’t think that it has any battle scenes. “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962, directed by John Frankenheimer) also has scenes set in Korea and involving military personnel, but no battle scenes. Rather, captured GIs including Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey are brainwashed by the North Koreans and sent back to the US. The whole group says exactly the same words about Raymond (Harvey), and the movie showcases one of the great sick mother-son ever with Angela Lansbury chewing and spitting out the scenery as Raymond’s mother.

In a 2004 remake without much fizzle, directed by Jonathan Demme, Denzel Washington played the Frank Sinatra part and Meryl Streep Lansbury’s, and Live Schreiber Harvey’s, with an implant rather the conditioning.

There are loose body parts in “M*A*S*H” and unhinged brains in “Manchurian Candidate.” I’m pretty sure that the Korean film “Taegukgi Hwinalrimyeo” (The Brotherhood of War, 2004, written and directed by Kang Je-Gyu) is the goriest one. The considerable emotional punch of the film does not come from the explicit mayhem, however, but from the relationship between two brothers drafted into the army of South Korea. Let’s say that one, the elder, Jin-tae Lee (Jang Dong-gun), becomes an efficient killing machine, while the other, Jin-seok (Won Bin)), attempts to remain humane. Both kill many other Koreans and take risks that it is difficult not to categorize as “insane.” Although very, very, very graphic, the implausibility of either of them surviving some of their endeavors makes it impossible for me to say the film is “cinematic.” (I didn’t think they looked much like brothers in the film, but in the poster they do so more. And, as I wrote, for taking extreme action, they very much resemble each other. Also in stubbornness.)

The music (written by Dong-jun Lee) strikes me as bombastic and I don’t like the jiggling camera for some combat scenes, but, for me, the most gripping drama set amidst the Korean War has no visible Americans (though some allusions are made to them). And, unlike the American movies that are limited to a single time/place, “Tae Guk Gi” sweeps from before to after the combat, with plenty of atrocities and arrogance in between.

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“Tae Guk Gi” makes the American war movies that were hailed as providing new heights of “realism” seem tame in comparison, though they are less sprawling, and one of them, “Steel Helmet,” has major Korean characters (including a vicious one), rather than the faceless, demonized Other of the other American Korean War movies I’ve seen.

My favorite Korean War film is one that was made during it: Written and directed by Sam Fuller, “The Steel Helmet” was released in February of 1951. The camera, often shooting from low angles, moved fluidly, and Fuller overcame a tiny budget ($100K) that allowed only ten days of shooting (in the studio and in Griffith Park, a not obviously Korean-looking locale!) by showcasing hard-headed individuals… and “Short Round” (William Chun) a Korean orphan who hero-worships the very hard-bitten Sgt. Zach (Gene Evans) who doesn’t want to be a surrogate father… or to be in the fix he is in with a lieutenant likely to get everyone killed and a ragtag group… and a captured North Korean major trying to undermine the commitment of a black medic and Japanese American sergeant to the Stars and Stripes. “Steel Helmet” is one of Fuller’s best films and takes questions of racism in the American ranks head on. The action scenes are obviously low-budget, but the personal dynamics in the shelter of a Buddhist temple make for something close to being a masterpiece.

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What I think is the best American movie set on a battlefield of the Korean War is “Pork Chop Hill.” It was directed in 1959 by Lewis Milestone who had made the definitive World War I movie (All Quiet on the Western Front” (the best picture Oscar-winner for 1930) and some fairly formulaic, propagandistic World War II ones, particularly “Edge of Darkness” (1943), “The North Star” (1943), “Purple Heart” (1944), “A Walk in the Sun” (1945) and “The Halls of Montezuma” (1950), as well as some other standouts “classics” including “The Red Pony” (1949), “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946), “Of Mice and Men” (1939), “The General Died at Dawn” (1936), and “The Front Page” (1931).

Based on the book by solider/historian S. L. Marshall, and regarded by some as “the first modern war film,” “Pork Chop Hill” is the account of K Company, led by a stony Lt. Clemons (Gregory Peck), ordered to retake Pork Chop Hill from the Chinese in 1953, while negotiations to end hostilities are underway at Panmunjom. The hill has no particular strategic value, but those commanding Clemons believe that holding it will show US resolve to the communists. It is not for him or his men to understand, they’re just the ones dying there. Orders are orders, and theirs is not to reason why, but to stand and die — in considerable numbers— 107 of an original 135— if less considerable than the number of those trying to retake the hill after K Company takes it and digs in.

It is not just a matter of “face,” but of testing determination. It can easily seem childish “If you have it, I want it, if you want it, I want it,” but this is a dynamic not unique to the stalemated war in Korea!

The real Lt. Clemons was a technical advisor for the film, and Peck (whose production company made it) sought a gritty, realistic look. Peck is stalwart in battle, while being more than a little frustrated at the lack of promised flanking support and reinforcement needed to resist the teeming horde (the demonized enemy). Unlike Clemons, Peck had considerable support from George Shibata (the Japanese American second-in-command), black actors Bob Steele and Woody Strode, and white ones including Martin Landau and Rip Torn, et al.

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The Bridges at Toko-Ri,” (1954, directed by Mark Robson [Home of the Brave, Champion, Valley of the Dolls]) based on a best-selling novel by James Michener is darker than most big-budget, star-studded Hollywood movies. I regard it is the best American Korean War “action picture” particularly the final aerial assault on the heavily guarded bridges and the tense aircraft carrier landings.

There is a boring relationship (“the mushy stuff”) between William Holden and Grace Kelly slowing down the movie, as a bickering married couple. The real standout performance is Mickey Rooney’s as Mike Forney, a helicopter rescue pilot. Frederic March is also quite good as an Admiral keenly aware of ordering pilots into certain death missions. And Holden was always good as a fatalistic action figure who will glower and maybe bemoan, but eventually if ungraciously will bite the bullet. His wife wants him to be flying combat missions even less than he wants to be flying them.. and the movie demonizes the opposition for daring to defend territory and shoot back. (That anyone resisting American troops must be evil seems to be a part of The American Way, especially in movies, even if “Bridges” is soberer than many…. and though “Brotherhood of War” shows that the Koreans were plenty capable of demonizing each other!)

War Hunt” (1962, directed by Dennis Sanders) is notable for containing the screen debuts of Sydney Pollack (as Sgt. Van Horn) and of Robert Redford (whom Pollack was later direct in many movies), as the still-humane newly deployed Private Loomis, who is warned against associating with loose cannon Private Endore (John Saxon), who ventures out and carves up North Koreans at night (a sort of serial killer permitted by the US army). Endore has a young Korean orphan servant/charge whom he calls “Charlie” (Tommy Matsuda), perhaps influenced by the relationship between a gruff American long in the frontlines in Korea and an admiring Korean orphan boy in Samuel Fuller’s “Steel Helmet.”), though Sgt. Zac was grizzled, but not psychotic.

Loomis attempts to pry the boy away from Endore, but Endore is so determined to hold onto Charlie that he deserts to live in the mountains with him following the cease-fire that is still in effect (no peace treaty ever having been signed). In showing a psychotic American soldier and attempts to survive without committing war crimes, the movie looks forward to “Platoon” and “Casualties of War” from the Vietnam War canon. “War Hunt” was shot in the US on a very low budget and before Redford had developed as an actor, but is surprisingly effective.

Sam Fuller’s “Fixed Bayonets” is a more conventional war, talkier (sometimes dawdling) movie than “Steel Helmet,” which he made only a year before. Nonetheless, it provides an interesting portrait of a NCO who flunked out of Officer Cadet School because he could not lead facing the increasing certainty that command for a rear-action deployment of two platoons is going to devolve on him. Richard Basehart (:a Strada, He Walked by Night, The Brothers Karamzov), who played corporal Deno, who is thrust into command by the death of the officers of the two platoons, was a master of portraying neuroticism. Here he is brave and Gene Evans prepares him as best he can (being less egotistical but not less tough than he was for Fuller in “Steel Helmet.”) Basically, it’s Thermopylae in the snows of the Sierra Nevadas (that are supposed to be mountains in Korea) with an American man Rising to the Occasion. The movie has outstanding cinematography by Lucien Ballard and a once popular soundtrack by Roy Webb. And a very brief appearance near the end (but enough to get on the poster reproduced here!) of James Dean.

BTW, the US 1st Infantry Division did not serve in Korea, Fuller names his General and Regimental Commander after his the men he served under in WWII, service portrayed I “The Big Red One” (1980) Terry de la Mesa Allen, Sr. and George A. Taylor

Sayonara” (1957, directed by Joshua Logan [Mr. Roberts]), based on another James Michener bestseller is mostly about US servicemen on R&R in Japan during the Korean war and breaking the taboos of interracial romances. It was nominated for 10 Oscars, including best picture, netted 4, including best supporting actor (Red Buttons) and best supporting actress (Umeki Miyoshi).The cinematography of Ellsworth Fredericks and acting of Marlon Brando garnered nominations (the latter, quite undeserved, as Brando seemed to be sleepwalking through the part as a Southern pilot while some of his comrades in arma EW discovering another world).. Ricardo Montalban’s kabuki actor providing editorial comments is best forgotten, and this is far more an “American occupation of Japan” movie (and “Orientalism exoticism”) than a “Korean War movie,” even though the American men are part of the war machine.

“All the Young Men” (1960, written and directed by Hal Bartlett) has Sidney Poitier as a sergeant put in command of a small detachment of Marines very much in harm’s way in the snows of 1951 Korea. There is, of course, a hardcore Southern bigot (Paul Richard), a busted-down rival preferred by the men (a way-too-old-for-the-part Alan Ladd) along with the usual wild mix of Hollywood war movies, including Swedish heavyweight champion (at the time) Ingemar Johansson, smart-mouthed New Yorker Mort Sahl, teenage hearthrob of the time James Darren (Gidget, etc. and, the next year, “The Guns of Navarone”), and a Native American with the subtle name “Hunter” (Mario Alcalde). The movie is very, very predictable and less interesting than the much earlier (1949) “Home of the Brave,” when the burden of proving the black soldier more than the white soldier’s equal was carried by James Edwards (in an unlikely WWII situation there and again in Korean in “The Steel Helmet”).

The Hunters” (1958, directed by Dick Powell [The Enemy Below]) is based on a superb book by “writer’s writer” James Salter, who was a fighter pilot in Korea. The aerial part of the movie (the first part) is good, but when hotdog F-86 pilot Robert Wagner and weary (heavy-lidded) veteran pilot Robert Mitchum are shot down and have to make their way cross country together, the movie becomes a hokey yawner. “Grounded” it is in every sense! For that matter, the adultery soap opera back at the base in Japan is also very phoned-in. Mitchum and May Britt have no chemistry. At least Wagner can irritate Mitchum a bit! The best parts are the airborne parts.

Douglas Sirk’s recurrent leading man, Rock Hudson (e.g., Written on the Wind), appeared in “Battle Hymn” in 1957. The movie about a guilt-wracked WWII bomber pilot (he accidentally bombed a Japanese orphanage) turned minister who reups for the Korean War received a Golden Globe (the award of the Hollywood Foreign Press) as “Best Film Promoting International Understanding”! It is based on the story of Colonel Dean ‘Killer’ Hess (played by Hudson). Its main interest for someone who has seen a lot of 1940s Hollywood movies is that it features Dan Duryea as an amiable can-do sergeant loved by the children(!). The story drips treacle (do I need to say more than the word “orphans”?), though it also has some good aerial bits.

Battle Circus,” directed by Richard Brooks from his own novel in 1953 is a very bad adumbration of “M*A*S*H” with Humphrey Bogart staffing a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital and unconvincingly romancing June Allyson, band with attempts at humor falling flat. “The Rack” with Paul Newman and “Sgt. Stryker” with Lee Marvin show legal actions for former prisoners of war of the North Koreans. I haven’t seen the Howard Hughes movie (his last) starring Robert Mitchum and Ann Blyth, or the1986 Dutch/South Korean”Field of Honor.” One I’d like to see is the 2010 Korean film “The Front Line.” “71” is another.

Far and away the worst Korean War movie I’ve seen, however, is “Inchon” with Laurence Olivier failing to convince in the role of Douglas MacArthur that Gregory Peck had mastered in the less fanciful but still far from good Korean War-focused biopic “MacArthur.” Financed by Moonies, “Inchon” is in league with “Battlefield Earth” in more than suspect financing in being a serious competitor for the label “worst movie ever.”

Also bearing mention are some movies featuring American veterans of the Korea War returned to the US: A Hatful of Rain, Manchurian Candidate, In Cold Blood, Shock Corridor, The Big Lebowski, Big Fish.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

Also see my list of the best WWII Movies here.