Flynn's last great film
17 June 2021
Warning: Spoilers
'Objective Burma' was a highly popular but also highly controversial film and a very good one about the war in Burma. The controversy was that the heroes are American soldiers, (including the Tasmanian Flynn, whose character, Captain Nelson, says he is from Maine - I wonder if he ever met Hawkeye Pierce or Jessica Fletcher), in a theater of war that dominated by the British, Indians and Chinese. Not that the action could not have happened as presented here: the story is based on American General Frank Merrill's 'Marauders', who made a name for themselves fighting in the Burmese jungle. But it angered Winston Churchill and British audiences, who walked out on the film, causing it to be re-released in 1952 with a prologue that made it clear that Lord Mountbatten was running this campaign from India and showed a picture of Ord Wingate, who had been doing the same sort of fighting long before Merrill and his Marauders showed up.

One more thing to think about regarding this controversy: All countries, in making films primarily intended for their domestic audience, are going to feature heroes of their countries. It's just that American films were getting shown all over the world, so these films seem to be emphasizing American heroics at the expense of other nations. Warner Brothers could have made a movie about Ord Wingate but would it have sold as well? And how many American heroes are there in British war films, such as "In Which We Serve", (1942)? Yes there are American heroes in "The Bridge on the River Kwai" (1957) and "The Guns of Navarone" (1961) but those were films intended for an international audience, of which the American market was a big part.

The story is relatively simple, although the mission it describes starts simple and gets complicated. Flynn's company is to parachute into Burma and destroy a radar station to open the way for the invasion of Burma by allied forces. They accomplish this fairly easily, (probably too easily), but plans to air-lift them back out at an abandoned airfield, (why would it be abandoned and unguarded in wartime?), have to be aborted because of the arrival of a Japanese force so the men are going to have to make their way out on foot. There are two plans for getting out and it's unclear which would be more likely to be successful so Flynn splits his forces and uses both plans. One group meets with disaster. The other survives but is running out of food, water, ammo and sanity with the Japanese closing in. Just as things look bleak the invasion begins and they get rescued.

Flynn character, so complicated in the previous year's 'Uncertain Glory', is very uncomplicated here. He's a purely good guy and a low-key leader that gets his men to follow him with humane concern for them, (while they are inhumanely mowing down the Japanese), as well as a confident attitude that waivers but never vanishes and some good humor. It's not the sort of performance that wins awards but it carries the mission and movie to a successful conclusion.

A strong musical score by Franz Waxman emphasizes the drama but also the heroism of the cast, even as they underplay that aspect of their roles. The film is somewhat marred by an excessive amount of talk by the men, (who would have remained as silent as possible to avoid detection. There's a lot of talk about where they come from, where they'd rather be and what they'd like to be doing. Would that help morale or degrade it? Particularly irritating is George Tobias, normally one of my favorite character actors, who does the "I'm from New York" schtick to the limit, with a constant line of unfunny patter.

This was one of those Flynn films that was shown by my local station when I was a kid and I've seen it several times since. I recall it as opening the way the trailer does, with Henry Hull's war correspondent reading an account of the mission that could only have been submitted after its completion. He then bridges scenes with his narration - and then dies before the mission is complete. That really shocked me as a kid- the narrator is dead! But the DVD version I now have has no narration by Hull's character. It does have the added-on prolong with Mountbatten and Wingate so Hull's narration must have been sacrificed to the new UK-friendly 1952 version.

It could be argued that this was Errol Flynn's last great film, although it certainly wasn't his last good one. It's also Flynn last film made during World War II and his last taking place during that war, other than the highly obscure and forgotten 1951 film 'Hello God'. After this it was back to westerns and swashbucklers, along with some further attempts at 'serious acting'.

Two ironies of Flynn being in this film- it takes place in the area of the world Flynn grew up in, although he was one the other side of Indochina, (and it was shot in California at the Los Angeles County Arboretum and Botanic Garden). He had volunteered to be a guide to forces fighting in New Guinea and other islands in that area. Instead, he was leading a fictional campaign in Burma. During the filming, he wrote his second book, "Showdown" about his adventures in New Guinea in the early 30's. The other irony is that Errol's son, Sean, disappeared in Cambodia while covering the Vietnam War as a photojournalist and has never been found. He, like his father in this film, was stuck behind enemy lines. But life, unlike the movies, doesn't always have happy endings.
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