21 August, 2013

Objective Burma


World War II.

January, 1942.

The Japanese objectives in Burma are focused on the capture of Rangoon, the capital and principal seaport.  This would close the overland supply line to China and provide a strategic bulwark to defend Japanese gains in Malaya and The Dutch East Indies.

The campaign was fought between The British Commonwealth -- including Canadians -- and The United States against The Empire Of Japan, Thailand and The Indian National Army. 

While being politically complex -- The British, United States and Chinese all had different strategic priorities -- it’s the only land campaign by The Western Allies in The Pacific which was fought continuously from the start of hostilities to the end of the war.
And in our story?

If ‘Desperate Journey’ advertised World War II, today’s film documents it.  While ‘Journey’ was Indiana Jones-fun, we’re now in the real.  Think ‘Raiders Of The Lost Ark’ versus ‘Schindler’s List.’  As Barbara Jean Matthews once wrote about Life versus The Arts:  “People don’t just get killed, they die.”

And in switching from the oft-thought-of “romantic European fight,” we’re now in a completely different theatre here -- that is, theatre of war -- in South East Asia, marching through the hot, humid jungle;  our film today based loosely on the real-life six-month raid by Merrill's Marauders in:

‘Objective Burma’ (1945)
w Alvah Bessie and Ranald MacDougall & Lester Cole
d Raoul Walsh

Hal Erickson wrote for The New York Times, “‘Objective Burma’ [rates as] one of the best combat films of WW2.  Errol Flynn stars as Captain Nelson, who leads a hardy band of paratroopers behind enemy lines … for the purpose of destroying a Japanese radar station.  Their mission accomplished, Nelson and his men prepare to make their escape by plane, but this proves to be impossible.  It is therefore necessary for the surviving paratroops to make a grueling 150-mile journey by foot through the Japanese-held jungle, in hopes of eventually reaching their own lines.  [The] performances are uniformly excellent, with Flynn, George Tobias and William Prince standing out.  Director Raoul Walsh and cinematographer James Wong Howe stage the combat scenes with brutal efficiency, showing little but conveying a lot in the way of gore and carnage.”

“Brutal efficiency?”  That goes for the making of the film and Merrill’s Marauders, to be sure.

So far in this “Top 5 Retrospective Of Errol Flynn’s Films” we have –

‘The Adventures Of Robin Hood’
‘They Died With Their Boots On’
and ‘Desperate Journey’

Now this --

If you’ve seen ‘Objective Burma’ -- and this isn’t really a spoiler -- don’t you first think of their parachuting-in to those great Franz Waxman violins?  It isn’t just an incredibly dramatic sequence -- for my money it holds up to William Goldman’s - Richard Attenborough’s great ‘A Bridge Too Far’ -- but Waxman was nominated for The Oscar here;  didn’t win but did five years later for that little what-its-name, ‘Sunset Blvd.’  (Sorry, strange way to open a review.  Let’s move on …)

If there’s a film in Mr. Flynn’s list that can be called a masterpiece -- beyond ‘The Adventures Of Robin Hood’ -- this is it.  Nominated for three Oscars, it was originally released “cut” (they edited it down), but please be sure you’ve seen the 142-min version (a looooong runtime in the 40s).  But much like ‘Cinema Paradiso,’ the longer version helps.  (Sorry, still a strange way to open a review.  Moving on again …)

Coming off the first Flynn-Walsh collaboration ‘Desperate Journey’ -- that movie being a “high adventure romp” in the likes of the classic ‘Gunga Din’ (and homaged in that other classic ‘Raiders Of The Lost Ark’) -- ‘Objective Burma’ is indeed a serious look at World War II.  Yep, Flynn and his boys parachute into an occupied jungle to bomb a radio station -- interestingly, that being the easy bit -- but then have to march their way out.  And it’s that very march that takes up most of our story;  a looooong march -- physically, emotionally -- that dramatically tolls on our band of brothers.

‘Objective, Burma’ was made immediately after the events it depicts -- and even before the end of WWII -- so it’s a piece of almost instant history;  and, as such, gets the technical and cultural details spot-on.  Walsh & Co had access to real planes, uniforms and equipment.  There was no point toning this stuff down, for the film was made with an audience of real soldiers in mind;  and they would have spotted inaccuracies faster than any historian.

In England, ‘Objective Burma’ was taken to task by a newspaper journalist who felt the Americans unfairly took credit for the success of the Burmese campaign (and not just by journalism;  none other than Winston Churchill expressed genuine anger over this).  As stated, the film is loosely based on Merrill's Marauders, special forces who were mostly British, Indian, Gurkha, Chinese and Burmese.  The Marauders did actually exist, and played a major part here.  Still, it's easy to see why the film caused massive offence in Britain and among troops of many nationalities in the China-Burma-India theatre.  So much so that Warner Bros. issued an apology, and withheld the British release of the film until 1952, at which time it was accompanied by a lengthy prologue -- the opening Voice Over on most cuts today -- extolling England's contribution to the Burma invasion.

As I do -- and thank you for letting me -- a quick bit on the back-stage.  Co-Writer Alvah Bessie (he did the first draft here) had done ‘Northern Pursuit’ with Flynn & Walsh two years before.  No slouch, he was nominated for The Academy Award for Best Story here.  Ranald MacDougall worked for Warner Bros. from 1944 to 1950, most famously on the Joan Crawford (& Michael Curtiz) classic 'Mildred Pierce,' for which MacDougall received an Oscar nomination.  He was a creator and co-writer of the CBS radio series ‘The Man Behind The Gun’ (awarded the ’42 Peabody) and did uncredited work on ‘Pride Of The Marines.’  He then went into TV under the pseudonym Quentin Werty where he created ‘Westinghouse Playhouse.’  Then in 1963, he scripted a little film called ‘Cleopatra’ for Joseph Mankiewicz (yes, brother to Herman and father to Tom;  look ‘em up if you need to).  Lester Cole (he and MacDougall did the second draft here) would next do James Cagney’s ‘Blood On The Sun.’  As for our Director, Mr. Walsh, please see the ‘They Died With Their Boots On’ write-up.  Needless to say -- much like Mr. Curtiz, though far less volatile -- Walsh & Flynn did some of their best work together.

A recent (2002) review wrote, “I have always thought that Errol Flynn was a fine actor and this is surely one of his best performances.  [‘Objective Burma’] portrays the horror of war without the unnecessary crude language and graphic bloodletting of modern war films.  [Flynn] shows a compassion and commitment to saving his men and accomplishing their mission.  The direction, dialogue, scenery and story paints a realistic story of what war really is.  No false heroics or unnecessary theatrical baggage.  Flynn, Henry Hull, etc. excel in their roles and this movie is a testament to the very best in theatrical productions.”

Real?  You bet.  And a great movie?  Bet even more.

As for us, class, we round out our Top 5 with ‘San Antonio.’


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