Monday, April 16, 2012

Reeling Backward: "Objective, Burma!" (1945)

I started out actively disliking "Objective, Burma!", but the movie eventually won me over. It begins like every other standard-issue World War II propaganda film, with a bunch of swell guys banding together through adversity to overcome the troglodyte enemy. It even stars a bunch of the same actors in supporting roles I've seen in other war pictures, with little variance as to their characterizations: the wisecracking New Yorker (George Tobias) playing a New Yorker, the tall Texan (James Brown) is again a Texan, etc.

Eying its nearly 2½-hour run time, I was ready to settle in for a long and laborious trek through the Burmese jungle with the swell gang. In other words, it looked like a repeat of another Raoul Walsh film recently discussed in this space, "Battle Cry," which amounted to nothing more than a bunch of training footage and smoochy-time with the local females.

But somewhere along the way, "Objective, Burma!" morphs into a gritty and realistic drama that gives audiences a taste of what it was really like to be a G.I. dogface trying to survive in the Pacific theater. No smooching here -- there's nary a female in the flick.

Based loosely on history, the story depicts a raid on a Japanese radar station in advance of the Allied invasion of Burma. It's so loose with the facts, though, that it depicts the invasion as an entirely American affair, when in fact the U.S. played only a relatively small role in the operation. Winston Churchill was so upset about the British forces getting the high hat, the film was banned in the U.K. for seven years.

The picture starts out with achingly slow exposition, as a bunch of officers meet in rooms and point at maps, and then the troops get briefed on the mission. They'll be dropped by parachute, take out the radar station, then be picked up at an abandoned airfield later that same day. The commanding officer, Capt. Nelson (Errol Flynn), is not terribly pleased about being saddled with an American newsman, Mark Williams (Henry Hull), who's a mite long in the tooth and green to boot.

Interesting aside: usually having a character who's a writer acts an obvious framing device, as his or her scribblings form the basis for the recollection of the events portrayed. Curiously, Williams dies about three-quarters of the way through the movie, which begs the question of who it was telling their story. The trailer for "Burma" makes this notion even more explicit, showing Williams' notebook pages being flipped to unspool the tale.

The actual raid goes off without a hitch, or even any American fatalities. The men are jabbering away about their easiest mission of the war, and I was bored to tears.

But then a huge Japanese force comes after them, forcing the planes to pull away just as they were about to land. The cakewalk turns into a death march, as they must traverse through the steamy jungle, depending on supply drops from planes to keep them alive as the Japs are never far behind in their vengeful pursuit.

I was struck by how much the screenplay -- by Ranald MacDougall and Lester Cole, story by Alvah Bessie -- focuses on the minutia of the soldiers' experience. We see what sort of food they eat (dry, tasteless rations), setting booby traps using grenades and wire, taking "salt pills" to help keep them from getting dehydrates, and putting water purifying tablets in their canteens to make the swamp muck drinkable.

Movies of this era generally gloss over the unpleasant details of life in the military, so I was impressed by the verisimilitude.

The disposition of the men changes, too, as their numbers dwindle and their odds grow worse. The swell-guy shtick pretty much goes out the window, and they get more and more surly. There's even one occasion where the men refuse to get up at Nelson's orders -- a display of insubordination that one hardly ever sees in movies of the 1940s.

"Objective, Burma!" came out in early 1945, not terribly long after the fate of the war in the Pacific was still in doubt. By this point, the Allied forces were beginning to wrap things up against the Japanese. I think that's why it was possible to release a movie that showed how grim life in the Army can be -- Hollywood realized it was no longer in the business of recruiting new soldiers. That makes it the sort of unglamorous movie you probably wouldn't have seen from the big studios in 1942 or '43.

One more note: Unless I'm mistaken, I believe non-Japanese actors were used to mostly portray the enemy. They certainly don't look or sound Japanese. It's possible they were supposed to be soldiers of other nationalities commanded by the Empire, but it's still a little off-putting.

3 stars out of four

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