Friday, March 6, 2015

*379. MERRILL’S MARAUDERS: Shooting a Hollywood Movie in Clark

SHOOTING STARS. A lobby card showing the stars of the movie "Merrill's Marauders", led by actor Jeff Chandler. The movie was mostly shot around the environs near Clark, as the terrain simulated that of Burma, where the story took place. 1961.

 One of the most daring exploits during World War II was when Brig. General Frank D. Merrill led 3,000 American volunteers of his 5307th Composite Unit behind Japanese lines across Burma to Myitkyina, battling the enemies successfully, even beyond their limits.

 Warner Brothers thought that the heroism of the “Merrill’s Marauders”, as the men were called, would make a good Hollywood movie, and so in 1961, it assembled a stellar cast headed by Jeff Chandler (as Brig. Gen. Frank D. Merrill) , Ty Hardin (2nd Lt. Lee Stockton), Peter Brown ( as Bullseye), Will Hutchins (as Chowhound) and Andrew Duggan (Capt. Kolodny, M.D.), and headed off for the Philippines in April 1961 to start the movie production.

 Producer Milton Sperling chose to film his Technicolor production in the Philippines partly because of the similarity of its terrain to that of Burma. Besides, there were the added advantages of the availability of technical facilities in Manila and the comparative lack of language barrier which would make filming easier, smoother. Also, the starstruck U.S. Army’s Special Forces and the Philippine Armed Forces were ready to extend their assistance. Two Filipino actors were also chosen to appear in the movie--Luz Valdez, who as a Burmese girl practically had no speaking lines, and Pancho Magalona, in a minor role.

 Clark Air Force Base in Angeles town proved to be the perfect production headquarters for the cast and crew, as the required rugged jungles, mountainous terrains and were just behind the military base. A February 1962 issue of Screen Stories, a Hollywood movie magazine reported the behind-the-scene stories: “While on march in the jungles, the film company lived in camps with no comforts.

Diminutive Negrito tribesmen were employed as bush beaters to drive off predatory beasts and snakes. No sprayed glycerine was necessary to make the actors “sweat’ for the camera, for the merciless jungle sun beat down on their steel helmets. Filming scenes in foxholes found such unwelcome visitors as lizards, land crabs, and all kinds of bugs and snakes. For scenes in which they waded through swamps, they were invariably covered with leeches.”

 Hundreds of Americans from Clark volunteered as extras for the large-scale battle scenes. After their strenuous rehearsals on the first day, thirty percent failed to come back for more. The movie war was too tough!

 To make matters worse, Chandler suffered a slipped disc while playing baseball with U.S. servicemen while taking a break on the set at Clark, exacerbating a previous back condition. He insisted on postponing hospitalization in order to remain with his fellow actors until the picture finished. Director Samuel Fuller respected Chandler’s loyalty, but he arranged treatment of the agonizingly painful back injury.

 His co-stars Ty Hardin and Peter Brown, on the other had, had the time of their lives in Angeles. They learned about dating olive-skinned beauties the hard way. Brown mused, “A Filipino girl is always accompanied by a chaperon, and the only way to make a date is to gift the father’s best friend with several jugs of native joy water”.

 When the filming wrapped up, Before the cast of the movie put on a show at the Silver Wing Theater, on the base, for the U.S. servicemen and their families. Chandler sang ballads. Hardin, Brown and Duggan left their audience in stitches by playing absent-minded cowboys in a satire on TV Westerns. The Hollywood stars endeared themselves to the Negritos when they adopted a 55 year old, 3-foot tall native. He was thrilled when they presented him with a Mickey Mouse wristwatch.

Almost bursting with pride, he exclaimed: “Now I am the richest man in my village. In trade for this watch ,I can get myself several wives!”. The cast returned to Hollywood where everything went back to normal for most of the actors. Chandler, whose back condition had taken a turn for the worse, was hospitalized on May 13 at Culver City Hospital. A surgery was performed but an artery was damaged, leading to his death on 17 June 1961.

Chandler did not live to see the 1962 premiere of “Merrill’s Marauders” , but it certainly would have made him happy to know that the film became a critical and commercial success, thanks in part to the support of many Filipinos and Americans in Clark Air Force Base.

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