Induced by Warner Bros. to make this film as a test run for his dream project, The Big Red One (1980), Samuel Fuller had wanted Gary Cooper to play U. S. Army Brigadier General Frank D. Merrill, who during the Second World War commanded the unit that the press dubbed “Merrill’s Marauders.” Cooper, dying, declined, perhaps adding thereby another wrinkle of defeat to Fuller’s widescreen elegance. Cooper’s replacement by nonentity Jeff Chandler didn’t help, but the even lower nonentities that flooded the lesser roles did their part to suggest the labor of the rifle platoon of anonymous volunteers. Merrill and his men are on assignment in Burma, waiting desperately for British replacements after a grueling campaign against the Japanese.
Fuller’s film begins in color, with voiceover narration setting the historical scene in 1942, at which point the Allied effort was losing the war. Abruptly a square screen opens up inside the rectangular one; black-and-white archival material is suited to the continuing voiceover. Thus newsreel reality “breaks up” the colorful panorama—so much so that Fuller, here as Brechtian as John Ford, makes us question what in Technicolor we have been looking at: historical past; the location for the shoot. When the screen-within-the-screen disappears, we are left with Fuller’s bravura fusion of documentary and fiction: a war platoon movie that is anti-dramatic, consisting of short shots rather than extended scenes, altogether suggesting the fragmenting nature of war that unit cohesiveness contests and, hopefully, overcomes. Throughout, each faint appearance of a narrative arc is undermined and undone, although we—who know the outcome of the war—supply the conclusion against which we can measure what we see. Therefore, Fuller should have been allowed to end his film ironically, as he wanted; the upbeat militaristic parade is unconscionable.
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