Errol Flynn said he tried to join every service available during World War II, but they all turned him down because of the poor condition of his heart, among other ailments. So he contributed to the war effort by making a series of war films, five of which we see here, made between 1942 and 1945. Like John Wayne and others, if he couldn't help win the War on the front lines, he'd do it in Hollywood. It helped build up American and Allied morale during the War years.
The Warner Bros. films in the "TCM Spotlight: Errol Flynn Adventures" set include "Desperate Journey" (1942), co-starring Ronald Reagan and Raymond Massey, directed by Raoul Walsh; "Edge of Darkness" (1943), co-starring Ann Sheridan and Walter Huston, directed by Lewis Milestone; "Northern Pursuit" (1943), co-starring Julie Bishop and Helmut Dantine, directed by Raoul Walsh; "Uncertain Glory" (1944), co-starring Paul Lukas and Jean Sullivan, also directed by Raoul Walsh; and the film I'm going to talk about here, "Objective, Burma!" (1945).
Warner Bros. pulled out all the stops making "Objective, Burma!" Not only did they assign it one of their top (albeit waning stars), they gave the project to Raoul Walsh, director of such films as "The Roaring Twenties," "Gentleman Jim," the films listed above, and later "White Heat" and "The Naked and the Dead." Then the studio got Jerry Wald to produce it; Ranald MacDougall and Lester Cole to do a screenplay from a story by Alvah Bessie; Franz Waxman to compose the musical score; and, best of all, James Wong Howe as director of photography.
With that A-class team in place, they spared no expense in filming an epic that runs almost two-and-a-half hours in length (142 minutes). Of the films in the present set, "Objective, Burma!" comes off best, even though, as we'll see, it has its shortcomings.
The movie's preface tells us that after the Japanese overran Burma, General Joseph W. Stilwell vowed he'd someday return and take the country back. The movie tells the story of a group of men who contributed to that end. Burma was the backdoor to China, and the Allies had to reclaim it.
Flynn plays Captain Charles Nelson, assigned to lead a team of commandos who parachute deep into Japanese-held Burma with the aim of blowing up a Japanese radar and communications station. Nelson's mission is key to the Allied invasion of Burma. (The air force can't just bomb the radar station because they don't know precisely where it is.) After destroying the radar installation, Nelson and his men must find their way to an abandoned airstrip where planes will be waiting to take them back to their home base. As it turns out, however, blowing up the radar station is the easy part; it's getting back that's hard, especially when the planes Nelson and his men are counting on can't get in. Nelson and his team must walk their way out of the country, about 150 miles through the jungle, all of it patrolled by the Japanese.
For the most part, "Objective, Burma!" works well. Director Walsh develops some good tension as the men prepare for their mission, carry out their duties, and then face the almost impossible task of trekking though enemy territory with the odds stacked against them. Just watching the men as they wait to jump out of the airplane and parachute into the jungle is an edgy scene. What's more, Walsh never flinches from showing us the grittiest, most-unpleasant side of warfare, given the censorship codes of the day. (Interestingly, there is even a shot showing some of the soldiers swimming completely naked in a lake, something that either slipped by the censors or Walsh convinced them was necessary for authenticity.) And few directors staged action scenes as well as Walsh did.
A fine, understated performance from Flynn aids Walsh in his assignment, Flynn never acting the part of the swashbuckling hero for which we best know him but behaving as an ordinary man under trying circumstances, an architect in civilian life now caught up in a hellish situation.
In addition, Franz Waxman's film score and Jame Wong Howe's cinematography add greatly to the film's aural and visual appeal. Then, too, aiding the realism we get authentic uniforms and armaments, genuine archival WWII footage, and outdoor location shots not only on Warners' lot but at the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden, a place where many filmmakers found perfect locations for their tropical settings.
Yet, not everything about the film rings true. In the first place, the movie mightily upset the British, who pointed out that the actual Burma campaign was a largely joint British-Australian effort, while this film implies it was almost entirely an American victory. The British banned the showing of the film in England for half a dozen years after its release. So, yes, the movie is quite the patriotic American flag waver. What's more, its supporting cast seem much too stereotyped, filled with lovable, colorful characters with colorful nicknames, like Corporal "Gabby" Gordon (George Tobias), the comedy relief, and Mark Williams (Henry Hull), a newspaper correspondent and older gentleman who somehow gets permission to accompany the mission.
What's more, the film is simply too long. What could have been a tight, compact, and more-involving ninety-minute movie the filmmakers stretched out close to an hour longer. About halfway into the story, the action begins to get static and predictable.
Still, it's the end result that counts, and "Objective, Burma!" holds up as a rousing adventure yarn--exciting, thoughtful, and entertaining.
Warner Bros. present the black-and-white movies in their native aspect ratio, 1.33:1, and in the best condition possible short of frame-by-frame restorations. "Objective Burma" looks excellent, thanks to that cinematography by James Wong Howe I mentioned, the B&W contrasts showing up strongly, and the object delineation fairly crisp. Some of the location footage and most of the archival footage looks pretty worn, but we have to expect that. The rest of the film, 99% of it, has hardly a scratch, tick, fleck, or fade in it.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural audio on all five films is fairly nondescript. By today's standards, it's mediocre, of course, but it was among the best the studios could offer at the time. In "Objective Burma" the drawbacks are a rather forward, sometimes piercing upper midrange and a limited frequency response. Get by those things, and you'll find a smooth, natural midrange for dialogue, a reasonably wide dynamic range with good dynamic punch, and almost no background noise.
Each of the films in the set come with its own collection of bonus items, mainly a "Warner Night at the Movies" replicating a typical program of materials one might have seen in a theater at the time of the movies' original release; theatrical trailers; on "Objective Burma" a commentary track; scene selections; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages on most of the films; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Specific to "Objective Burma," we first get an audio commentary by film historians and authors Rudy Behlmer and Frank Thompson, joined by film-music historian and author Jon Burlingame. After that is a "Warner Night at the Movies" that includes a trailer for "Pride of the Marines"; a vintage newsreel; a ten-minute comedy short, "So You Think You're Allergic"; and a Merrie Melodies cartoon, "A Tale of Two Mice." The extras wrap up with a theatrical trailer for "Objective Burma," thirty-six scene selections; English and Spanish spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
The directors alone should tell you all you need to know about the five films in this Errol Flynn set: Raoul Walsh and Lewis Milestone. They were responsible for some of the most-popular war movies of all time, and if you enjoy the genre the films you'll find here are among the best.