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While he waited for Warner Brothers to green-light his autobiographical World War II epic The Big Red One (1980), Sam Fuller agreed to direct Merrill's Marauders (1962) with the proviso that it would be "a dry run" for his more ambitious personal project. Adapting Charles Ogburn's 1959 book The Marauders, an account of the routing of the Japanese army in Burma by Brigadier General Frank Merrill's 3,000-man composite unit in 1944, Fuller reached out to veteran actor Gary Cooper to play the seasoned but ailing Merrill. No sooner had he accepted than Cooper was diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him in May 1961. Cooper's death haunted Fuller, whose mourning was compounded by the unexpected death only two months later of Cooper's replacement, Jeff Chandler, shortly after completing his scenes for the film. (Hobbled by a long-standing back injury that had become aggravated during filming, Chandler underwent surgery for a spinal disc herniation, dying from complications related to the procedure at the age of only 42.) Merrill's Marauders proved to be an estimable hit for Warner Brothers in the summer of 1962 but Fuller's satisfaction was compromised by the studio-mandated replacement of several scenes with second unit footage shot by another director. Scalded by his experience with Warners, Fuller would have to wait nearly twenty years to realize The Big Red One.
By Richard Harland Smith