About this Recording
8.557706 - WAXMAN: Objective, Burma!
English 

Franz Waxman (1906-1967)
Objective, Burma!
Film Score, 1945
Score restoration by John Morgan

 

The Making of Objective, Burma!

By early 1944 the Allies were no longer losing World War II; they were on the offensive. But certainly up until 1943 things were not going well and various films reflected those dire times. Wake Island (1942), Guadalcanal Diary (1943), Bataan (1943) and many others dealt with our losses during the period when Japan had made successful invasions in the Pacific. But when Warner staff producer Jerry Wald had the idea in January 1944 to make a film about the Burmese campaign, the tide had turned.

Wald got the O.K. to proceed from Jack L. Warner and wrote his own story outline as well as having staff writer Alvah Bessie concoct another. Wald's approach had to do with an expeditionary mission to destroy a military objective which was followed by a heroic but thwarted retreat. Bessie, in his outline, detailed a behind-the-lines mission that ended as the returning troops passed a new group starting out.

The two outlines were blended somewhat and became the basis for the evolving script written by Ranald MacDougall, who was later joined by Lester Cole (in addition to ex-Warner writer Wald). Whereas other World War II film subjects were often mentioned officially or unofficially as being similar to, based upon, or reminiscent of previous works – such as Bataan and Sahara (1943) recalling the structure of The Lost Patrol (1934) – it seems that no one mentioned the parallels in story construction between Objective, Burma! and an MGM 1940 picture, Northwest Passage, which had derived from the first part of Kenneth Roberts' historical novel of the same name, it, in turn, having been based on real characters and incidents in upper New York state and Eastern Canada during a period of the French and Indian War (1759).

The plot: Major Rogers (Spencer Tracy), the leader of a group of trained men called Rogers' Rangers, at the request of the British, leads an expedition to destroy a hostile Indian village. Following a successful surprise attack at daybreak, the Rangers encounter on their return numerous difficulties as well as their other enemy – the French. Suffering from exhaustion, hunger, and waning morale, the Rangers split up into four groups, some of which are ambushed and tortured to death. When the survivors reach an English fort where food and supplies had been promised, they discover the fort has been abandoned. The Rangers are virtually starved and desperate. But the British arrive with food and supplies.

In his 3 January 1944 "notes," Wald wrote "Read Northwest Passage."

The fictional plot of Objective, Burma! has Captain Nelson (Errol Flynn) and about fifty American paratroopers being dropped in a Burmese jungle in 1944 to find and destroy a Japanese radar station. After accomplishing their mission, the men trek through 140 miles of enemy-filled jungle when a plan to get them out by plane fails owing to the enemy's intervention. Nelson decides to split his men into two groups. The Japanese capture one group and kill everyone. The other group arrives at a predetermined rendezvous, but it is barren and bleak with no signs of rescue. Then the Allied airborne invasion begins, and Nelson and his few survivors are rescued.

Of course, the parallels are in the bare bones of the outline and the character of the protagonist – certainly not in dialogue or some other ingredients.

Primary co-writer Ranald MacDougall had an impressive career in radio before coming to Warner Bros. under contract in late 1943. He developed and was the head writer on the highly respected and award-winning CBS World War II drama series, The Man Behind the Gun. The realistic stories were based on fact and interviews by MacDougall but developed as composite representations of military personnel. MacDougall recalled, "The first film I worked on was Pride of the Marines [1945 – uncredited] and after that Objective, Burma! … If there was any element of 'realistic detail' in any of those films, some of it at least was generated by Man Behind the Gun. I found it extremely difficult in Hollywood, at that time anyway, to sell realism."

Objective, Burma! was planned from the outset as an Errol Flynn vehicle, but in a memo from producer Wald to Jack Warner on 26 January 1945, Wald says: "In those early days when we were getting Burma ready for production, there were times when Brother Flynn refused to become a part of the entire project and I know that it was you, injecting your confidence into the production, that succeeded in selling Flynn into making the picture." Flynn's reluctance probably stemmed from reading or hearing about Wald's 12 January "note" regarding "The possibilities of doing a story with a Burma background much along the lines of Desperate Journey." That 1942 Flynn vehicle, not to be taken seriously, portrayed in comedic Rover Boy-like fashion the exploits of an RAF bomber crew which, having destroyed an objective, is brought down by anti-aircraft fire in Germany where they make their way through that country via fun and games with the Nazis and back to England. Although the film was a success, Flynn did not want to do a follow-up. Objective, Burma! evolved in a completely different mood and tone.

With Warners' estimable Raoul Walsh set to direct, the two primary jungle locations were selected at Whittier Park just east of Los Angeles, and the "Lucky" Baldwin Santa Anita Estate (now the Los Angeles County Arboretum in Arcadia). Some of the other exteriors were filmed at the Warner Ranch in Calabasas and at Providencia Ranch (now Forest Lawn – next to Warners' Burbank studio). The old Metropolitan Airport in Van Nuys and the air field in Palm Springs doubled for air bases in India and Burma.

Shooting commenced on 1 May 1944, with the script still being revised and embellished throughout the filming. Sixty shooting days were allotted but owing to uncharacteristically bad weather, including rain and fog during the summer months, and the frequent script changes, the virtually all-exterior picture ran over by forty days!

A good deal of time and care were obviously put into the film. A better than average script was given a semidocumentary approach and solid, exceptional execution. Raoul Walsh's direction and James Wong Howe's photography superbly captured the operating procedure of the paratroopers, the realistic tensions, the omnipresent danger in the jungles and swamps, the gradual breaking of the men's spirit, and the grim battle scenes.

Obtained from various newsreel, documentary, and government sources was actual footage of paratroopers jumping, gliders landing and expelling jeeps, tractors, cannon, etc. Also shots of Commander Mountbatten, British General Wingate, General Stilwell and his Chinese troops, America's Colonel Phil Cochran and his commandos, and Brigadier General Merrill of Merrill's Marauders fame.

Knowing that a good deal of military footage was going to be interspersed within the film, cinematographer Howe was careful to style his black-and-white shooting to be compatible with the real material.

Released in January 1945, Objective, Burma!, made at a cost of $1,600,000, received generally excellent reviews. There were some comments about the picture's excessive length of 142 minutes, but audiences seemed to be engrossed from beginning to end.

The actors performed with restraint and believability, Flynn being particularly good. No bravura histrionics were part of his portrayal; he was professional and human. The actor regarded the vehicle as one of his few worthwhile works. After the film opened, producer Wald commented in a 26 January 1945, memo to Jack Warner that "I have received innumerable calls from friends of mine of the press, who commented mainly on how good Flynn was in the picture." Raoul Walsh said that "he was a much better actor than people realized."

Cinematographer Howe felt "that it was one of Flynn's best. He really gave a fine performance. He was writing a book then; when he wasn't in a scene, he'd go in his tent and say, 'I'm going to do a little writing.' He was very serious about it." Director Walsh also remembered Flynn working on his novel during this period. The book was Showdown (published in 1946) and it dealt with the adventures of Shamus O'Thames, an Irish soldier of fortune – pretty much modeled on the actor himself. Flynn authority Peter Valenti stated that "As Flynn originally wrote the book, it presented a scathing picture of studio life. Editors who feared that some of Flynn's characterization[s] might be libelous backed off from printing the entire novel, a revision which infuriated Flynn. The unused material, which would have told the adventures of Shamus in Hollywood, was tentatively entitled Charlie Bowtie in America."

Raoul Walsh had previously directed five of Flynn's films, including They Died With Their Boots On (1942) and Gentleman Jim (1942). Walsh's forte was action. He once told writer-producer-director Roy Huggins: "Stick to Westerns and outdoor action movies … Parlor directors have short careers." Veteran assistant director Ridgeway (Reggie) Callow worked on two of Walsh's films at Warners. "He taught me more about action [camera] set ups than anybody in the business," Callow said. "He was a great action director and very fast. I don't think Raoul was much help to the cast at any time."

William Prince, who played Lieutenant Jacobs, a leading role in Objective, Burma!, recalled that "Walsh gave very little direction [to the actors]. The only direction I specifically remember is 'All right boys. No Hamlets in the jungle.'" "Walsh is a 'rough-tough' director," James Wong Howe said. "He wants realism … But he seldom tells the actors what to do."

Objective, Burma! was not released in England until September 1945 – shortly after VJ day. The timing couldn't have been worse. It played one week at the Warner Theatre in London's West End. Sensitive critics were outraged that the major operations of the British 14th Army in Burma were deliberately slighted, making the invasion activities appear to be primarily and overwhelmingly an American show – whereas in reality, America's contribution was decidedly on the short end in that particular operation.

It has often been said that the picture was officially banned in England by the government and was "pulled" by order of the Lord Chamberlain. Absolutely untrue. Warner Bros. voluntarily withdrew it after one week. Ironically, the London audiences seemed to respond very well to the film. Indeed, when it finally was released in the United Kingdom in 1952, most Britishers – including film critics – wondered what all the uproar had been about.

Objective, Burma!, it should be emphasized, was made during World War II, and the enemy – in this instance the Japanese – was depicted as evil incarnate.

As for producer Jerry Wald who initiated the project, just a few years later he was the recipient of the prestigious Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award to a "creative producer whose body of work reflects a consistently high quality of motion picture production." His recent productions at that time included Mildred Pierce (1945), Johnny Belinda (1948), Key Largo (1948), and Adventures of Don Juan (1949) – the latter his second and last film with Errol Flynn.

Raoul Walsh directed Gary Cooper in a 1951 production released by Warners that took place during the Second Seminole War in Florida (1840). Distant Drums seemed to be very reminiscent of Objective, Burma! in terms of basic structure. "A fact," said one of the writers, Niven Busch, "that not one of the hundred or so American critics who spoke about the film noticed."

 

The Score

Shortly after Jerry Wald became a full producer at Warner Bros. in 1942, composer Franz Waxman began his long-term contractual stay at that studio. He had previously been at MGM for several years and before that, Universal. When Waxman was on loan from MGM to David O. Selznick to score Rebecca in 1940, Lou Forbes, Selznick's music director, introduced the composer to Leo F. Forbstein, Warners' longtime music department head and Forbes' brother. Thus began the later realized plan to bring Waxman to Warner Bros. The first Wald-Waxman collaboration was Destination Tokyo in 1943. This was followed by eight other films before Waxman left Warners in 1948 (Wald left in 1950). Later the two worked together on five films at other studios. The Warner titles included, among others, Pride of the Marines, Humoresque, Possessed, Dark Passage, and Task Force.

Objective, Burma! was Waxman's fourth score for Wald. By then they had developed a good working relationship as well as an enduring friendship that would last until Wald's death in 1962.

Lawrence Morton, orchestrator, music critic, and director of various music festivals, wrote an extended study of the score for Hollywood Quarterly periodical (which later became Film Quarterly) in the July 1946 issue. He discussed Waxman's approach to Objective, Burma!, beginning with the composer's utilization of motifs in this particular film:

None of these themes are attached to characters of the play …They refer, rather, to general situations and serve as binding posts to which other materials can be tied. They are the unifying elements of the score; … There is unity, too, in the whole harmonic texture of the score. This is a mark of distinction in Hollywood 's film music, where, unfortunately, the spirit of eclecticism too often permits a variety of harmonic styles to be gathered together in a veritable Babel. In Objective, Burma! the normal harmonic level has a considerable degree of dissonance …

Franz Waxman wrote some notes about his experience working on Objective, Burma!:

When I write music for a film I try to imagine what the sound of that music will be in a theatre, what it will sound like in relation to the dialogue and the action. It is a matter of tone color, and in some cases you can make a decision simply by reading the script. In a film like Objective, Burma! you can tell immediately that the music will have to be military and epic, and that some Orientalism will be required for the Burmese locale. But it is only when you see the actual film that you realize the possibilities for scoring certain sequences.

Such an opportunity was the sequence in Objective, Burma! where the paratroopers jump from the plane to pursue their mission in Burma. The music must be descriptive in character. The zig-zag figurations in the violins more or less characterize the jerky, abrupt movements of a man who is jumping from a plane. The hundreds of bodies floating in the air, descending in different directions, gave the inspiration for this violin figuration. Later the main theme joins in unison, and after everybody is safely on the ground, this same thematic material is developed in fugato played ponticello pianissimo by the strings until the end of the sequence.

Objective, Burma! called for mostly an extroverted kind of music but there are films that need just the opposite. In a psychological drama like Possessed (1947), the problems are more subtle. There are no battles, fires, chases, and so on. There are very few external events to be illustrated. There are mostly states of mind, conditions of feeling. You might say that in Objective, Burma! the composer had only to watch the characters, while with Possessed the composer had to get inside the characters.

With regard to Waxman noting "that some Orientalism will be required for the Burmese locale," Lawrence Morton wrote that the composer "ruled out such banalities as the characterization of the enemy by what Western ears regard as Oriental music – the clichés of the pentatonic scale, temple bells, and wood blocks."

Waxman received an Academy Award nomination for this excellent score.

The Road To Recovery, made by the Army Air Force Motion Picture Unit in 1945 and distributed through the War Activities Committee on a noncommercial basis to the public, used some of the actual music tracks from Objective, Burma! at no charge by arrangement with Warner Bros. There may have been other documentaries from military motion picture units that also utilized music tracks from the Waxman score – and, we do know, for certain, from other Hollywood scores, but this particular transaction is confirmed in the Objective, Burma! files in the Warner Bros. Collection at the University of Southern California.

Parts of the music for Objective, Burma! also turned up in at least three later non-Waxman-scored films for Warner Bros.: Up Periscope (1959), Merrill's Marauders (1962), and PT 109 (1963). (See John Morgan's "Arranger Notes.")

Although Waxman wrote a fresh score for his last released film, Lost Command (1966), he incorporated a somewhat similar approach to his Objective, Burma! paratroopers jump music into the opening credits while the audience views action taking place in North Africa – action showing French paratroopers jumping from aircraft and descending at the time of the Algerian armed struggle for independence in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Rudy Behlmer
Rudy Behlmer is the author of Inside Warner Bros., Behind the Scenes: The Making Of …, and co-author of The Films of Errol Flynn, etc.

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"Objective, Burma!'s real purpose was to convey a graphic, first-hand portrait of men at war..." – Raoul Walsh, Each Man in His Time

While Hawks, Ford, and Hitchcock have been canonized by hoary academia, Raoul Walsh seems to stand outside those ivy covered film school walls, an informal icon with three fingers of Irish whiskey in hand, ready to swap yarns across the decades to countless generations who truly love the movies, and know his incredible roster of some of Hollywood's greatest films. To watch those films is to come to know Raoul Walsh in a uniquely personal way; Raoul Walsh is his movies. And Walsh was truly a special part of the cinema, from the time it was born, until the time Walsh died in 1980.

When the movies were young, he fearlessly directed a hand cranked film of Pancho Villa. And the man who invented modern movies, D.W. Griffith, cast him as an eerily handsome John Wilkes Booth in The Birth of a Nation (1915). And then there were more roles – until he found himself where he would be most famous – behind a camera, directing films. Walsh was also one of the 36 founders of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.

He has truly earned a place at the head of the table, along with other Hollywood greats. Andrew Sarris once pointed out that a Ford hero would walk into a saloon, buy a drink and sit in a secluded table to watch what went on. A Hawks lead would walk into that same saloon, buy a shot of whiskey, drink it and leave.

But Walsh's hero would walk up to the bar with a couple of friends and hoot, "Drinks on the house!"

Jack Warner depended on him. Both Walsh and John Ford had trouble with an eye. While Ford nursed his problem, Walsh decided to get rid of his bad eye, wear a dashing eye patch and concentrate on using the good one he had left. Gable was one of his good friends. Errol Flynn, the dashing superstar who captured the imaginations and hearts of so many, was also his friend and called him "Uncle." Women loved him. In short, Raoul Walsh was a man of true style. (Some said that he was the inspiration for the classic Hathaway shirt ad that featured a suave man, well-dressed and sporting a devil-may-care eye patch.)

Raoul Walsh was, in short, the consummate Hollywood professional. Eschewing the role of an artist, this tall, handsome man with matinee good-looks created cinematic art in spite of all the bluff. His long and prolific career embraced every sort of genre and he was respected by the front office suits, casts and crews alike. On the set, there was no question who was boss; but his light touch and sense of immediacy bring special life and verve to his films.

Among his most personal projects – The Strawberry Blonde, White Heat, and Gentleman Jim – tough guy Jimmy Cagney found seminal roles in the first two titles as did drinking buddy Errol Flynn in the winning biopic of the great prizefighter. All the lead roles in a Walsh film – including The Strawberry Blonde, They Died With Their Boots On, Gentleman Jim, White Heat, Pursued and Objective, Burma! among the many – share the same sort of traits. Each has a job, a task, an objective to do and a mission to fulfill. But in the end, it's not a sense of professionalism that drives them, it's a simple sense of duty and unwavering need to go home or what is perceived to be home. In the classic gangster film, High Sierra, Roy Earle wants to "crash out" and find some sense of humanity and hearth. The effort kills him, but doesn't beat him. In White Heat, Cody Jarrett wants to go home to his "Ma;" the struggle both kills and destroys him.

All that is uniquely evident in the way that Walsh's entire cast performs in Objective, Burma! They portray a tightly knit group of men, all from disparate backgrounds who know what they have to do is important – and what must be done. None of the airborne troopers are lifers. These are ordinary men, in it up to their necks. Strong men armed who fight and die and who have only one objective: get the job done, get back in one piece and go home. And deep inside, each of them knows that some – or all – will not make it back. But they drive on. Because they have to, it's a part of what they are. And what Walsh sees as building blocks of manhood.

As a film and as film music, Objective, Burma! is burnished in a classic Warners patina of action, heroism and irony. The "workingman's studio" of the 30s and 40s brought the immediacy of World War II newsreel headlines to a feature film. And Franz Waxman's legendary score presents a symphonic narrative of the blood, sweat and tears that offered a vividly personal musical commentary for those who waited while so many fought in the worldwide crusade against humankind's cruelest evils. That the music has endured and stands alone as a great symphonic experience is as much a testament to Waxman's enduring genius as it is to the events that inspired the music for Objective, Burma!

Jack Smith
Jack Smith is film music critic and commentator for Films in Review magazine and the author of numerous liner notes for compact discs.

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Arranger's Notes

When Bill Stromberg and I decided to record Franz Waxman's Oscar-nominated score for the Warner Bros. wartime feature, Objective, Burma!, we were determined to restore it to the composer's original vision, which proved challenging. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, as a cost-saving measure, the original full scores were marked up with changes and annotations made by Ray Heindorf, Howard Jackson, and other arrangers for use in such films as PT 109, Up Periscope, Merrill's Marauders, and various Warner Bros. military films of the period. Not only were cuts made for the new timings, but the instrumentation was also drastically reduced for budgetary considerations.

In addition to dealing with these later changes, the editing of Objective, Burma! was being fine-tuned both after Waxman wrote the music and before the actual recording sessions, as well as after the music was recorded.

There were also several cues for which no full scores survived but we felt had to be included in this recording. So both Bill and I found ourselves orchestrating these cues during our nights under the Moscow stars, giving the newly completed orchestration to the copyists the next day to prepare parts for the orchestra. In all our recordings, our loyalty is with the composer and his music – not necessarily what is heard in the final film. We find, more often than not, by incorporating music that was originally cut or dialed down to inaudibility, the music flows much more smoothly and helps make for a compelling listening experience away from the film.

Waxman was fortunate to be assigned to the scoring of Objective, Burma!. The film had many sequences that were dialogue-free and afforded the composer a rich palette of dramatic situations and locales that Waxman fully understood and utilized. From colorful orchestral tuttis to simple unisons, the composer created a veritable textbook of scoring techniques for this type of film. Waxman's longtime orchestrator, Leonid Raab, brilliantly realized the composer's fresh and innovative orchestral requirements: from the celli being divided into eight separate solo parts in Jacobs' Death to the most brilliant colors of Invasion and Landing. Raab was also a practical musician with a sense of humor. In the cue, Burmese Jungle, the orchestrator wrote a note to the copyists: "Please cue bass trumpet part into the trombone part in case the trumpet stinks." In his original recording, Waxman used the trombone – as we did in our recording.

Waxman's orchestra was a large ensemble including three flutes (doubling piccolo and alto flute), three oboes (doubling English horn and heckelphone), four clarinets (doubling Eb clarinet, bass clarinet and baritone saxophone) and two bassoons (doubling contra bassoon) for the woodwinds. The brass consisted of four French horns, four trumpets, four trombones and tuba. Also needed were five percussionists, two harps, two pianos, organ and strings.

When Waxman arrived at Warners in the early 1940s, he joined an elite group of top composers, including Max Steiner and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Warners was a studio that had a tradition of lots of music in their films, so Waxman could now flex his musical muscles and create first-rate scores with virtually unlimited orchestral resources for film after film. Between 1942 and 1947, there are several Warner Bros. Waxman scores that deserve serious, extended recordings. In 1997, we recorded a full album of music from Mr. Skeffington and yet, with Objective, Burma! now re-recorded as well, we still have only scratched the surface of this most marvelous and inventive composer's legacy.

John Morgan

 


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