08 January 2007

Objective, Burma! (1945, Raoul Walsh)

{70, B/B+, ***} | Museum of Modern Art, "Franz Waxman: Music for the Cinema"

• Now that's more like it. Obviously no less jingoistic than Edge of Darkness (and the film's casual racism is sometimes difficult to take), but here the emphasis is on military minutiae: the topographical features of the enemy terrain as seen in a mock-up; the monotonous contents of ration boxes; the way you attach your chute to the harness before jumping from the plane. We get briefings rather than speeches, and even ordinary conversations among the men, while stylized (there are several tracking shots in which each grunt speaks in turn just as the frame discovers him), have a credible offhand quality.

• Interesting, productive tension between can-do forthrightness and paralyzing fear, coupled with a remarkable solicitude evinced by those characters who possess the former toward those who are crippled by the latter. The middle-aged journalist who tags along is a blatant audience surrogate, but no less effective for being obvious.

• This may be the most relaxed I've ever seen Errol Flynn—he even throws a few of his lines away! And yet he still seems 20x more engaged and appealing than he did in the Milestone. Competence and self-assurance are just part of the captain's job description.

• The nighttime stealth attack on the trenches ranks among the most harrowing battle sequences ever filmed, in part because Hollywood was perfectly willing to depict the enemy as subhuman, crawling like venomous reptiles through the underbrush. (The Japanese in this movie are more frightening than the Nazgûl in Lord of the Rings.) It reminded me of why Letters From Iwo Jima is such a remarkable exercise in empathy; at the same time, it reminded me of why Letters From Iwo Jima, for all its worthiness, is ultimately kind of wan and dull.

• All of that said, the film isn't really about much of anything—just a rousing, blow-by-blow account of a single mission in a campaign that had precious little support from the U.S. in real life. (Apparently the British were even more peeved about Operation, Burma! than they were more recently about U-571.) It's most distinctive in the operational stages, succumbing to genre clichés once the men start humping it through the jungle. I dig Walsh, but he's no Sam Fuller.

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