Errol Flynn’s final propaganda effort is this rock-solid action drama where a large troop of soldiers parachute into ‘Jap-infested’ Burma and blow up a radar installation. The job goes swell until the men’s pickup flight is foiled by a large and determined mass of Japanese soldiers. Flynn & Co. then separate, and begin a long trek that ends with a bare handful of the men struggling to survive on an isolated hill, hoping reinforcements come just in time.
Scripted by Lester Cole and Ranald MacDougall and based on a story by soon-to-be-blacklisted writer Alvah Bessie (Northern Pursuit), the dialogue is tight and lean, and the story moves at a brisk pace, never giving the impression of a nearly 2 and a half hour film – quite long for wartime programmers.
Burma was a prestige picture, and star Flynn is supported by a solid cast of character actors, including Mark Stevens (Mutiny), Richard Erdman (the Twilight Zone episode “A Kind of Stopwatch”), George Tobias, and William Prince. Henry Hull (Werewolf of London) plays an aging war correspondent whose stoic confidence is challenged by the tough terrain and war horrors, and Hugh Beaumont (Leave it to Beaver) has a small role as an officer.
The filmmakers did indulge in a bit of dramatic license in making the American participation in the Burmese campaign rather big – Britain led the mission that eventually ousted the Japanese, and the smaller U.S. contingent was headed by General Stillwell, and a troupe known as Merrill’s Marauders, whose own exploits were dramatized with further license by Sam Fuller in 1962.
The script allows for a token Brit leader to appear during the opening briefing session, but the rest of the film is all-American, and while the use of genuine stock footage from the prior U.S. Burmese campaign and procedural details are quite accurate, the mission Flynn leads to disable a radar installation is, well, bunk.
That invention, as well as the virtual omission of any British ingredients, outraged the press, causing Warner Bros. to pull the film after one week’s exhibition in the U.S., although the film was successfully reissued during the fifties, when temperaments were less tight, and the spirit within the film – defeating a cruel enemy and liberating a country – was apparently greeted with some nostalgia.
Being a film produced while the U.S. was at war with Japan, the enemy is portrayed as cruel, and the Americans’ arrival at a small Burmese village includes inferences that the women have been raped, and the men find remnants of the colleagues all hacked up behind a bunch of trees. Hull screams out his disgust at the Japanese when he sees Flynn’s co-commanding officer die after begging to be killed, after the effects of unseen torture have made him unrecognizable.
The makers of Burma makes no bones about loathing the Japanese – they’re portrayed as a pestilence in need of eradication – and that’s the toughest aspect to digest for contemporary audiences less attuned to the racial caricatures that permeated WWII propaganda films.
As discussed in the DVD’s commentary track, Japanese Americans were being housed in internment camps, so Chinese and Filipino actors were cast, but they’re all noticeably chubby and pear-shaped – a clear contrast to the agile, muscular Yanks who leap, roll and glide over terrain which the Japanese awkwardly lurch around. Even if the Japanese dialogue were authentic, the lines were dubbed by apparently white actors, making the characters sound sloppy and lazy.
Taking into account the negative stereotypes, Burma remains a solid action film about men evading a dangerous enemy, comradeship, and heroism, with Franz Waxman’s dissonant score tensing already superb sequences. The film’s musical and action highlights include jungle trek, the Burmese village fight, and the parachuting sequence where the Yanks land on Burmese soil during the night – a spectacular montage that’s almost bettered near the end by the Japanese attempting to route out the Americans on the hill, and the first wave of American gliders bringing troops and gear.
Walsh’s editor, George Amy (Dive Bomber, The Sea Hawk), seamlessly intercut doc and real combat footage, and James Wong Howe’s black & white camerawork is magical, capturing the sweat and grit on the actors’ faces, and coordinating stellar action montages using stock footage.
Burma was an influential film, both in direction and written sequences, and there’s little doubt James Cameron adapted the launch of the soldier craft to the planet in Aliens (1986) from the flight chatter scene in the pre-parachuting montage. (It’s where the men are seen nervous, smoking, boasting, bonding, or with one character, sleeping until it’s time to jump – much in the way Corporal Hicks sleeps as the troop carrier drops to the planet.)
Warner Home Video released Burma on DVD in May of 2003, and has reissued the film in the TCM Spotlight set (see end for further details), but in a new transfer. Among the 2003 extras, the bio notes on director Walsh have been removed, whereas the two military shorts, “The Rear Gunner” and “The Tanks are Coming” have been reassigned to Northern Pursuit and Desperate Journey, which are part of the TCM set, respectively.
The new Warner Night at the Movies programme features trailers for Objective, Burma! and Pride of the Marines (1945); and a newsreel showing the rescue of American captives from a Japanese camp in Bataan, with some shots of rescued soldiers showing somber, silent visages of men suffering brutal psychological trauma, and a handful of on-camera statements by survivors (some, ahem, reading from cue cards).
There’s also the short “So You Think You’re Allergic” (1945), the third in a lengthy series of comedic ‘So You Think’ shorts (1942-1956) written and directed by Richard L. Bare (Wicked, Wicked). Bare’s shorts featured everyman Joe McDoakes (George O’Hanlon), and in this gem Joe is affected with “a malignant case of acute nasal mucosa, better known in fashionable circles as allergies.” The humour is a perfect blend of light slapstick, cartoon gestures, literate and fast-whirling dialogue, and smart ass gags, with Joe trying to get through a hard day of sneezing, ultimately settling on dousing his dinner with “Doc Feathers’ ANTI SNEEZE – More Snoozing Less Sneezing” formula so he can get a good night’s sleep and wake up feeling ducky.
Bare, a successful TV director of shows like Green Acres, is pretty much forgotten today, and his series of faux instructional shorts deserve their own complete set (although some do appear on TCM now and then).
The last extra is the cartoon “A Tale of Two Mice” (1945), which spoofs Abbott and Costello with a short and dumpy rat named Castello, and best buddy Babbit, who smacks him up and bullies him into doing dangerous cheese-hauling missions while a cat has no qualms about eating the hairy interlopers.
The DVD’s main extra is the commentary by film historian/author Rudy Behlmer, film music historian / author / teacher Jon Burlingame, and author Frank Thompson, who collectively describe the production’s genesis, filming at the various long-gone Warner ranches and arboretums, casting, and plenty of anecdotes regarding director Walsh, whose career began as an actor, and expanded into directing.
(Walsh is responsible for some of Warner Bros.’ top entertainments, but his early blockbusters include Fox’ first sound film, In Old Arizona, and that studio’s first 70mm western, The Big Trail, with newcomer John Wayne.)
The new DVD transfer is very crisp with beautiful grays and blacks, and the mono mix, while punchy, does have some shrillness in the high end.
This title is now part of Warner Home Video’s TCM Spotlight: Errol Flynn Adventures box, which includes Desperate Journey (1942), Edge of Darkness (1943), Northern Pursuit (1943), Uncertain Glory (1944), and Objective, Burma! (1945).
Flynn’s pre-WWII adventure film, Dive Bomber (1941), is available separately or as part of The Errol Flynn Signature Collection, Vol. 2, which includes The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Dawn Patrol (1938), Dive Bomber (1941), Gentleman Jim (1942), and The Adventures of Don Juan (1948).
© 2003 & 2010 Mark R. Hasan