Objective, Burma! is a 1945 American war film that is loosely based on the six-month raid by Merrill’s Marauders in the Burma Campaign during the Second World War.
Directed by Raoul Walsh and starring Errol Flynn, the film was made by Warner Bros. immediately after the raid.
A group of United States Army paratroopers led by Captain Nelson are dropped into Burma to locate and destroy a camouflaged Japanese Army radar station that is detecting Allied aircraft flying into China. For their mission, they are assigned Gurkha guides, a Chinese Army Captain and an older war correspondent whose character is used to explain various procedures to the audience.
The mission is an overwhelming success as the 36-man team quickly take out the station and its personnel. But when the airborne troops arrive at an old airstrip to be taken back to their base, they find the Japanese waiting for them at their rendezvous site. Captain Nelson makes the hard decision to call off the rescue planes, and hike out on foot.
To reduce the likelihood of detection, the group then splits up into two smaller units to meet up at a deserted Burmese village. But when Nelson arrives at the meeting place, he finds that the other team had been captured, tortured and mutilated by the Japanese. Only Lieutenant Jacobs survives, and he too dies after telling Nelson what had happened. The surviving soldiers are then attacked and are forced again to retreat into the jungle. The men must then cross the swamps in their attempt to make it back to safety through enemy-occupied jungle.
Fighting an almost constant rearguard action, Nelson’s paratroopers also succeed as decoys leading Japanese troops away from the site of the British 1944 aerial invasion of Burma.
- Errol Flynn as Captain Nelson.
- James Brown as Staff Sergeant Treacy.
- William Prince as Lieutenant Sid Jacobs.
- George Tobias as Corporal Gabby Gordon.
- Henry Hull as Mark Williams.
- Warner Anderson as Colonel J. Carter.
- John Alvin as Hogan.
- Stephen Richards as Lieutenant Barker.
- Dick Erdman as Private. Nebraska Hooper.
- Uncredited Cast:
- Erville Alderson as General Stilwell.
- Joel Allen as Corporal Brophy.
- William Hudson as Fred Hollis.
- Anthony Caruso as Miggleori.
- George Tyne as Soapy Higgins.
- Rodd Redwing as Sergeant Chattau.
- Hugh Beaumont as Captain Hennessey.
- Carlyle Backwell Jr. as Lieutenant Barker.
Jerry Wald claimed he had the idea for doing a film set in Burma in Christmas 1943, feeling this particular theatre of the war would soon be active, and hoping the movie could be made and released before then.
Lester Cole says the original story was written by Alvah Bessie who wrote a “dozen or so” pages before being pulled off the project by Wald and assigned to something else. The job of writing the story and screenplay was given to Cole and a new writer for film, Ranald MacDougall. MacDougall had been a creator and co-writer of the CBS radio series The Man Behind the Gun that was awarded a 1942 Peabody Award. He had been contracted to Warner Brothers, with this his second film after uncredited work on Pride of the Marines. “Ranald was a pleasure to work with,” wrote Cole later, “bright, eager to learn, a facile writer of dialogue: we got along famously.”
In his memoirs, Cole claims Wald was inspired by a book about an attempted British invasion of Burma called Merrill’s Marauders and he decided to change the troops from being British to American. However, Merrill’s Marauders was an American unit.
The film was announced in January 1944, with Wald and Walsh attached. Errol Flynn was already being discussed as the star. Franchot Tone was mentioned as a possible co-star.
Filming began in April 1944. By this stage, the Allied campaign had already started in Burma, meaning Wald was unable to do a Casablanca style cashing in on the film’s release.
Cole says Walsh had “contempt for writers” but that Wald made him stick to the script.
The film was made with authentic World War II American military material, aircraft and gliders, due to their availability. Wald acknowledged that the plot bore a significant similarity to the 1940 film Northwest Passage.
Walsh said Flynn “was on his good behaviour because he was writing a book when I was not using him. Between being gung ho and typing his life story he had no time for anything more than a half a dozen drinks, which for him was almost total abstention.”
Exteriors were shot at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden, California. Filming began on 01 May 1944 and was scheduled for 60 days, but shooting required more than 40 extra days due to bad weather and constant script changes.
The movie also contains a large amount of actual combat footage filmed by US Army Signal Corps cameramen in the China-Burma-India theatre as well as New Guinea.
According to Warner Bros records, Objective, Burma! earned $2,117,000 domestically and $1,844,000 foreign. It was the studio’s sixth most popular film of the year, after Hollywood Canteen, To Have and Have Not, Arsenic and Old Lace, God Is My Co-Pilot and Christmas in Connecticut. The film was also one of the most popular movies of 1945 in France, with over 2.6 million admissions.
Even though it was based on the exploits of Merrill’s Marauders, Objective Burma was withdrawn from release in the United Kingdom after it infuriated the British public. Prime Minister Winston Churchill protested the Americanisation of the huge and almost entirely British, Indian, and Commonwealth conflict (‘1 million men’).
Objective, Burma! London 1945 premiere was remarkable: At a line in the script, (by an American, to the effect) “We should head north, I hear there might be a few brits somewhere over there” – The entire (English) audience walked out in outrage. It got a second release in the United Kingdom in 1952 when it was shown with an accompanying apology. The movie was also banned in Singapore although it was seen in Burma and India.
An editorial in The Times said:
It is essential both for the enemy and the Allies to understand how it came about that the war was won … nations should know and appreciate the efforts other countries than their own made to the common cause.
There were also objections to Errol Flynn playing the hero as he had stayed in Hollywood during the war, unlike actors like David Niven or James Stewart. Flynn, however, had tried to enlist but had been declared medically unfit for military service. His studio suppressed the news of his medical problems to preserve his public image.
The film was nominated for three Academy Awards in 1945:
- Film Editing – George Amy.
- Original Music Score – Franz Waxman.
- Best Story – Alvah Bessie.
Cole felt that Bessie did not deserve his credit on the film for story, saying he only contributed some pages, and felt he and MacDougall should have had it. However, he decided not to challenge the credit because Bessie was a friend. Cole was disappointed however when Bessie went on to earn an Oscar nomination.
- The movie was pulled from release in the UK after just one week.
- It was banned there after heated protest from British veterans groups and the military establishment.
- As the Burma campaign was a predominantly British and Australian operation, the picture was taken as a national insult due to the movie’s Americanisation of the Burma operation.
- The resentment that many felt was seen as yet another example of Americans believing they had won the war single-handedly.
- It was not shown in Britain again until 1952/1953, and only with an apologetic disclaimer. Incidentally, writer Lester Cole, who co-wrote the somewhat overly patriotic flag-waving script, would be branded an “Un-American” Communist, becoming one of the Hollywood Ten just a few years later.
- Cole’s screenplay was based on a story by Alvah Bessie, who was also a member of the Hollywood Ten.
- Most of the exteriors of Burma were shot at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden.
- The film has an authentic feel to it, thanks to the use of actual military aircraft and materials.
- Also, the film includes a large amount of authentic footage taken by US Army Signal Corps cameramen in the China-Burma-India theatre.
- All the weapons, uniforms and gear used are original and accurate.
- This was possible due to the fact that these were still in use to the US military when this film was made.
- WW2 movies made in recent times use reproduction weapons and gear.
- Neither Captain Nelson nor Lieutenant Jacobs carry sidearms, which was unusual, as infantry officers were issued 1911A1 .45-cal. pistols.
- Paratroopers particularly coveted these sidearms; ;they were powerful weapons with great stopping power at short distances, and made the soldier less vulnerable to approaching enemy troops while he was trying to get out of his harness and grab his rile, carbine or submachine gun.
Production & Filming Details
- Raoul Walsh.
- Jerry Wald … producer.
- Jack L. Warner … executive producer.
- Ranald MacDougall … (screenplay).
- Lester Cole … (screenplay).
- Alvah Bessie … (original story).
- Franz Waxman.
- James Wong Howe … director of photography.
- George Amy.
- Warner Bros. (presents) (as Warner Bros. Pictures Inc.).
- Warner Bros. (1945) (USA) (theatrical).
- Warner Bros. (1945) (France) (theatrical).
- Warner Bros. (1945) (Argentina) (theatrical).
- Associated Artists Productions (AAP) (1956) (USA) (TV).
- MGM Home Entertainment (1999) (USA) (video) (laserdisc).
- Argentina Video Home (2002) (Argentina) (VHS).
- Warner Home Video (2003) (USA) (DVD).
- Warner Home Video (2006) (USA) (DVD).
- Argentina Video Home (2008) (Argentina) (DVD).
- Warner Home Video (2010) (USA) (DVD) (Included in “TCM Spotlight: Errol Flynn adventures”).
- 2ème chaîne ORTF (1972) (France) (TV) (dubbed version).
- HBO Max (2020) (USA) (video) (VOD).
- MGM/UA Home Video (USA) (VHS).
- Release Date: 26 January 1945 (New York City, US).
- Rating: A.
- Running Time: 142 minutes.
- Country: US.
- Language: English.