Just One More Step…

A superb tribute to one of the most brutal campaigns of World War II, Sam Fuller’s unfairly ignored 1962 epic MERRILL’S MARAUDERS comes to Blu-Ray, thanks to the patriotic folks at The Warner Archive Collection.

During the first half of 1942, the U.S. military in the Pacific was faced with a seemingly impossible task:  specifically, stopping the Japanese from getting into India, and, while they were at it, to later take the town of Myitkyina.  At that period, the Japanese were far better prepared, had greater knowledge of the area, were ruthless in their ambush tactics and, worse, torture.  Aiding them was the terrain:  deadly, oppressive heat and humidity in a lethal environment loaded with natural living death (infested swamps, poisonous snakes, etc.).  Frank Merrill was assigned the job to stealthily reach the 500 mile objective with 3000 game troops quickly made “experts” in jungle warfare.  For every victory inch gained, it appeared to be two miles back – achievements not helped by the top brass, who added new tasks to the already overworked, physically and psychologically damaged participants of the 5307 Composite Unit, now known as Merrill’s Marauders (thanks to the publicity generated by the war press).  Merrill himself, gallant and heroic as he was, remained a questionable choice, as he suffered from a heart condition that made the journey a tense ordeal for those who knew the score.  Out of the original 3000 soldiers, only 100 survived.

No one could better tell the tale of fighting men under pressure than Sam Fuller, who had previously proven his cinematic American warrior mettle with The Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets, and China Gate.  Promised by Warner Bros. that if he embarked on this production, he’d get his dream project, The Big Red One – a European theater variation of the 5307 odyssey (where Fuller had been an actual participant) – sweetened the pot.  Alas, it wasn’t to be; although this movie did well, Sam would be denied his Big Red One for another 18 years (eventually spectacularly filmed by Lorimar, and, ironically, subsequently becoming a Warners property).

Agreeing to Warners demands, the writer-director was forced to share screenplay duties with producer (and Warner son-in-law) Milton Sperling.  Not a terrible situation, as Sperling was a pretty good scribe.  His “tick” was that he would never be satisfied with his efforts, and constantly came to the set with re-writes (Otto Preminger once told me that Sperling was “the only person I ever saw who could get Gary Cooper angry”).  But the script (based on Charles Ogburn Jr.’s book) works quite well, adding mere suggestions of Hollywood “glory” to the realistic Fuller approach (“Look okay to you?, is asked of the MD Captain during the mission.  “NOTHING looks okay to me!,” is his quintessential Fulleresque reply).  To further bring the drama to the screen, MERRILL’S would be filmed on-location in Pampanga in the Philippines, a decision that put the cast and crew into quasi-Marauders peril.  The heat and humidity, along with the powerful lights were nearly unbearable.

From the outset, the movie was fraught with jinxing – both man-made and act of God variety.  Original choice Gary Cooper was set to play Merrill (and would have been outstanding), but his real-life illness paralleled his character’s (not coronary thrombosis, but cancer), and he had to bow out.  The real Brigadier General Merrill’s stirring command of “just take the next step” helped move his men to their goal; in the pic, they are his last words before he succumbs to a heart attack (a great Fuller touch, but only half true.  Merrill, indeed, did suffer his first heart attack during the campaign – on March 29th of 1944; he lived another eleven years, passing on December 11, 1955.  The remainder of the actual operation was overseen by Executive Officer Chas. Hunter, and completed in August of that year).  Ultimately, the underrated Jeff Chandler was given the role, and played it beautifully, but the project’s on-screen/off-screen curse continued; while on-location, the actor engaged in football games with the crew, and injured his back – causing him to undergo surgery, once he returned stateside.  A botched operation, causing blood poisoning took its toll, and Chandler died on June 17, 1961.

The remaining casting hook was to make the Marauders familiar Warners TV faces:  Broncho‘s Ty Hardin, Sugarfoot‘s Will Hutchins, Lawman’s Peter Brown, plus Andrew Duggan, Claude Akins, John Hoyt, Chuck Roberson, Chuck Hayward, Mark Slade and others (one of the Merrill survivors Vaughan Wilson, acted as supervisor on the show, and also appeared in the pic as Bannister).  Being thousands of miles from Hollywood proved to be a trick card in Warners deck.  Many of the costars were informed via telegraphed pink slips that their series were not being renewed.  The anger and frustration of the beleaguered soldiers is, thus, often quite authentic (Hutchins genially shrugged it off.  “I always wanted to visit Japan, here was my chance”).

The new Warner Archive Blu-Ray of MERRILL’S MARAUDERS is a must-have for war pic and/or Sam Fuller fans.  It looks pristine gorgeous, as good as the Technicolor prints did in 1962.  Curiously, the anamorphic “scope” process was never given a credit in the ads or in the picture (it was the rarely heralded WarnerScope); suffice to say, William Clothier’s vibrant 2.35:1 location work is nothing less than sensational.  A music score by Howard Jackson sounds great in its original mono (using variants composed by Franz Waxman for 1945’s Objective Burma, another grueling tale of WWII jungle fighting.

My buddy, Will Hutchins, told me that it was indeed a rough shoot, but credited Fuller as one of his finest directors, and, equally important, “an all-around great guy.”  There were some perks to the production, he added.  “Now you’d never think this, but Andrew Duggan, who usually played these staid, stoic, humorless dudes, was hilarious. It turned out he was a classic movie fanatic, just like me.  Much of the down time (of which there was lots) was spent listening to him do expert mimicry.  He did fantastic impressions, and on one memorable afternoon did the entire Edgar Ulmer Black Cat, with not only flawless Karloff and Lugosi vocals, but every other character as well!”  Who’d a thunk it?

MERRILL’S MARAUDERS. Color. Widescreen [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Warner Archive Collection/Warner Bros. Entertainment. CAT # B07T3NQBST.  SRP: $17.99.

This title and others can be purchased at the Warner Archive Amazon Store or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold*

One thought on “Just One More Step…”

  1. In the novelization of Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” QT repeatedly refers to Andrew Duggan as “horse-faced.” I don’t really see it… .

    Like

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