Objective Burma (1944) **
Errol Flynn was in his mid-thirties and at the beginning of his slow decline when he made Objective Burma, his best war film and last first-class starring vehicle.
Well-directed by Raoul Walsh, with an often documentary-like vividness, the film contains one of Flynn’s best and most serious performances. Denied his repertoire of tricks and crowd-pleasing gestures – no swashbuckling, irony, mischief or romance (no female cast members at all, in fact) - his Major Nelson is a sober-minded and stoic commander most definitely not given to ostentatious heroics. The performance, in fact, should have reinvigorated his career and eased him into a new phase of more realistic, slightly older characters and performances; alas, his public image was by this time far too unyieldingly set.
Leading a platoon of paratroopers into the Japanese-occupied Burmese jungle in order to blow up a radar installation, his mission is a success, but the soldiers are forced to march through the jungle when their escape route is cut off. As the expedition is beset with ill-luck and then tragedy, Nelson is obliged to maintain discipline and morale despite the increasing likelihood of failure, and Flynn conveys well both the professional courage and private doubt.
Despite a lengthy running time, the use of American locations and a supporting cast of generic caricatures, the film is gripping and unsentimental, conveying the fears, hardships and tragedies of a mission behind enemy lines with some intensity. Neither does it trivialise the enemy, who remain throughout a vague, malevolent presence, all the more powerful for being so briefly glimpsed. And as this is Warners, there is also a hard-bitten newsman (Henry Hull) tagging along, whose Hemingwayesque ruminations, freed from military circumspection, add an unusually salted commentary to the action.
Today, the film may best be remembered for an unusual controversy that blew up after release. With a sensitivity still simmering years later when Steven Spielberg made his D-Day movie, Saving Private Ryan, British critics accused the film of implying that the invasion of Burma was a purely American enterprise. The charge is blatantly unfair: the film details one (fictional) mission immediately prior to the Allied invasion, British personnel are involved, and the film ends with a dedication “to the men of the American, British, Chinese and Indian armies, without whose heroic efforts Burma would still be in the hands of the Japanese.”
Nonetheless it was withdrawn from circulation in Britain and nor released until 1952, when an apologetic prologue was added. Much of the criticism seemed to be levelled at Flynn personally: a bizarre gesture, presumably emanating from residual (and unjust) resentment of his perceived shirking of military duties. The British often make themselves look stupid in this way, which is a pity.