Directed By: Sam Fuller
Starring: Jeff Chandler, Ty Hardin, Peter Brown, Andrew Duggan, Will Hutchins, Claude Akins, Pancho Magalona, John Hoyt, Luz Valdez
The 1962 Sam Fuller World War II film Merrill's Marauders was released on DVD by Warner Bros. Home Video in late 2007 and distributed exclusively through the Deep Discount DVD web site and the affiliated Critics Choice Video web site and catalog. Last spring, it was made available at all major retailers and the following is my (hopefully) better late than never review:
Merrill's Marauders tells the story of the 5307th Composite Unit (provisional) of the US Army that operated in the Burmese theater during World War II. While the British forces bore the brunt of the major combat in Burma, this American special forces unit trained in deep penetration tactics , dubbed "Merrill's Marauders" after commanding General Frank Merrill (Chandler), executed several missions deep into Japanese-occupied Burma disrupting supply lines and capturing strategic locations. The film tracks their progress as they trek ever deeper into Burma, moving methodically across hostile terrain to engage Japanese forces in Walawbum, Shaduzup, and Myitkyina. The grueling series of operations are detailed through the experiences of Merrill himself, charismatic young 2nd Lieutenant Lee Stockton (Hardin), and a colorful group of enlisted men under his command including the tough but fair Sergeant Kolowicz (Akins), the sharp-shooting Bullseye (Brown), the gluttonous Chow Hound (Hutchins), Japanese translator Taggy (Magalona), and animal-loving Muley (Briggs). Merrill is constantly warned of the dangers of pushing his troops beyond the limits of human tolerance by his Chief Medical Officer, Captain Kolodny (Duggan). despite these warnings, he exhorts his men to press on with every last breath despite heavy casualties, ever more dangerous missions, increasingly desperate conditions, and his own failing health.
After a prologue that lays out the historical context for Allied operations in Burma circa 1944, things start of at a suitably breathless pace as we join Merrill's forces already several hundred miles into occupied Burma on their way to engage Japanese forces at Walawbum. Unlike The Big Red One, Sam Fuller's 1980 film dramatizing combat experience in the African and European Theaters of World War II, 1962's Merrill's Marauders does not specifically focus on the horrors of combat. Given the restraints of the Production Code in the early 1960s, it would have been very difficult for Fuller to represent this on screen the way he would eighteen years later. Instead, Fuller uses Merrill's Marauders to document the exhaustion experienced by soldiers who endure extended duty in combat operations. While the exciting combat sequences are filmed with the typical style of Production Code sanctioned bloodless violence, Fuller avoids the Hollywood trap of making such violence look glamorous by underlining the mental and physical toll exacted on all of the principle characters prior to and after the action takes place.
For as long as the film concentrates on the combat troops and their mission-related hardships, it works perfectly and distinguishes itself positively from other war films of the era. The array of colorful characters leans a bit heavily on some clichéd archetypes, but the cast normally does a good job of humanizing them and making them sympathetic. The wheels threaten to come off of the wagon only when the film gets too caught up in repeatedly showing us the quirks of certain characters. For example, viewers of modest or better intelligence will get that Muley likes his mule from the word go, but then will keep getting new scenes reminding them of this fact over and over again. An episode a bit past the halfway point where the Marauders interact with Burmese natives including an injured young woman, an elderly woman, and a child feels tacked on by executives in the same mindset as the ones who wanted the scenes of William Holden frolicking on a beach with a nurse in Bridge on the River Kwai.
These moments detract only mildly from the overall film, which is a compelling portrait of soldiers under duress finding a way to persevere far beyond what they though were their personal limits. The cast embodying these troops is a strong ensemble anchored by fine, appropriately straightforward performances by Ty Hardin and, in what would tragically be his last film, Jeff Chandler.
The 2.4:1 transfers appears to be from a very clean element with little damage and some slight, but rarely distracting fading. Compression cannot quite keep up with the natural film grain, but from a reasonable viewing distance, this should not be perceptible. Overall, it is a strong presentation. I noticed occasional thin ringing along high contrast edges, but it was not pervasive.
Audio comes courtesy of an English Dolby Digital 1.0 track which appears to have been derived from a magnetic source of decent quality. The result is good fidelity for all elements of the mix and only light background hiss.
The sole extra is the film's theatrical trailer that runs three minutes and 46 seconds. It begins with unique footage of Samuel V. Wilson, Lieutenant Colonel U.S. Army Special Forces 5307th composite unit (provisional). Who talks a bit about the real "Marauders" unit before introducing the film clips that constitute the rest of the trailer.
The film comes in a standard Amaray style case with no insert. Cover art is derived from vintage promotional art. The disc menu is spare, with no chapter menu although there are chapters encoded that the viewer can access with their remote. The trailer is wisely accessible from the main menu rather than from an extraneous "special features" menu.
Although light on extras, this DVD of Sam Fuller's Merrill's Marauders is a welcome release of a better than average World War II film with more than acceptable audio and video. Fans of Fuller will definitely want to see his take on Pacific Theater World War II action, and fans of war films in general will appreciate its straightforward action and the way it transcends its occasional overreliance on genre conventions to present an honest representation of soldiers under extreme duress.