Korea on film: Kapyong Canoe river Jamestown line hill 187 Koje-do hill 355 Athabaskan crusaded Cayuga trainbusters club Imjin Mig-Alley thunderbirds ironsides cooperforce demilitarized zone Seoul the hook bed-check Charlie Kimshi Asahi Pork Chop Hill.
I have been presenting movie showings as part of the Canadian War Museum's "Thursday night film" program. The two Korean War films selected were Bridges at Toko-ri (my favourite) and Pork Chop Hill
Bridges at Toko-ri is one of the three films based on James Michener's writings. William Holden plays the role of a reluctant reservist recalled to serve as a carrier pilot. Mickey Rooney is excellent as the pilot of a rescue helicopter (a tribute to many such unsung heroes) while Grace Kelly is Holden's wife. There are excellent flying scenes as the Panther jets pound enemy ground targets and the story--whether it takes place on the carrier, in Japan on R & R or the Korean paddy fields--is gripping.
An earlier carrier-based story, Men of the Fighting Lady may be described as a semi-documentary film. Louis Calhern portrays Michener, who recounts some of the exploits of the naval aviators. Battle footage is excellent, and in one particularly nail-biting sequence, features Van Johnson (the principal actor) who guides a blinded fellow pilot to a safe landing on the carrier's deck. Aviation buffs, in particular, would appreciate the spectacular and highly realistic flying sequence.
Sayanora, although listed as a Korean War movie, is more of a three-handkerchief-weepie than a war film. It is based on another Michener work, and deals with the problems of interracial marriage and the love affairs of the hero (Marlon Brando) in Japan during the Korean War era. It gained a number of Oscars and Golden Globes. Perhaps its significance to Korea veterans is the co-starring of James Garner, a genuine Korean War hero who was awarded three Purple Hearts.
The other U.S. naval offering was Torpedo Alley, a some what improbable story where Mark Stevens, a Second World War pilot with a guilt complex, remusters to submarines after the war and finds himself in Korean waters. There is plenty of underwater footage, although official histories have little to say about actual allied underwater activity in the Korean War.
The other film with a naval slant--and a Canadian one at that--is The Great Impostor. Here Tony Curtis stars as Waldo Demara, whose impersonations include that of a naval surgeon on board HMCS Cayuga (The story appeared in this magazine Volume 3 Issue 5 as "The Case of the Spurious Sawbones"). A senior naval officer supposedly advised this episode; however, in one glaring example the RCN officers sported neat moustaches, a no-no in the fifties. As well, at the time of filming the actual Cayuga was on the other coast, and Athabaskan substituted, her hull number being briefly amended for the occasion.
The U.S. air force has its share of film footage. Most of these were run-of-the-mill efforts, with the usual romance elements punctuated by aerial combat scenes; Dragonfly Squadron, Iron Angel and Sabre Jet. The latter should not be confused with John Wayne's Jet Pilot as (on film) the Duke was commanding a Sabre squadron in Alaska at the time, a fact no doubt appreciated by the MiG pilots in North Korea.
Two films stand out. Battle Hymn features Rock Hudson as a pilot who accidentally bombed an orphanage during WWII. After becoming a minister, he is recalled to the service and assigned to train South Korean pilots. Combat flying scenes combine with his success in building a home for Korean orphans. The Hunters, starring Robert Mitchum, is the routine story of a band of misfits coming together as an effective team, but it is distinguished for its excellent aerial scenes.
Although not listed as a Korean War film, The McConnell Story tells of the exploits of Korean War ace Major McConnell as a navigator in WWII, a fighter pilot in Korea and eventually (and fatally) a test pilot. Alan Ladd starred with June Allyson as his wife (after her widowhood in The Glenn Miller Story one would think that she would have second thoughts about marrying an aviator!) Also titled Tiger in the Sky, this is worth seeing.
The remainder of the films deal mainly with the land war.
All the Young Men features a marine unit fighting overwhelming odds and overcoming prejudices to unite in battle. Alan Ladd is grounded for this one, and racial tensions arise when Sidney Poitier assumes command. In Men in War the usual story of a small unit facing heavy odds has (to my mind at least) an interesting sub-plot where Aldo Ray insists on bringing along his shell-shocked commander in order to preserve his honour. This 1957 movie may well be one of the first to introduce post-traumatic stress disorder in modern war.
Hollywood first featured the Korean War in 1951, in a low-budget production The Steel Helmet.
There are no great heroics--the soldiers simply do their best to survive. In a way it is an anti-war film, with no major stars. Nevertheless, in the opinion of some critics, it is one of the best Korean War films produced. I saw this film over a half-century ago and my major recollection is a cigar-stub-chewing old sweat whose habits set the pattern for many aspiring gung-ho types in later years and no doubt greatly increased the revenue of the "White Owl" makers.
Next came the turn of the Marines. Retreat Hell stars Frank Lovejoy in the saga of the withdrawal from the Chosin Reservoir to the coast in early 1951. The title was obviously inspired by General "Howlin Mad" Smith's comment "Retreat? Hell-we're only advancing in another direction!"
Of the other land battle stories two deserve attention. Field of Honor (sic) tells the story through the eyes of a Dutch soldier (the Van Heutz). The second, of course, is the highly rated Pork Chop Hill Based on the story by historian S.L.A. Marshall, it tells the story of the loss and utterly frustrating outcome. Battle scenes are recreated realistically and the cast--headed by Gregory Peck, are believable in their roles. This 1959 film was directed by Lewis Milestone, who had made his mark 30 years earlier with the original All Quiet on the Western Front.
One couldn't mention Korean War films without mentioning M*A*S*Hand its sequel M*A*S*H; Goodbye, Farewell & Amen (the final two-hour episode of the T.V. serial). The story is well known--either you enjoyed it or you didn't. I must confess that the serious medical personnel whom I ran across and respected (mainly in our own Norwegian MASH) bore no resemblance to the comical characters in the 4077th, but I felt that the film--and subsequent T.V. series were somewhat derogatory to the real medics. Another MASH movie, Battle Circus, features the unusual casting of Humphrey Bogart as a surgeon, with June Allyson (a glutton for punishment) as a combat nurse. This movie was panned by the critics.
Robert Mitchum returns to earth in One Minute to Zero where our hero becomes an army colonel charged with evacuating American non-combatants, but ends up bombing refugees. Ann Blyth provides a love interest.
Espionage and brainwashing are featured in Sergeant Ryker and The Manchurian Candidate. Lee Marvin stars as Sergeant Ryker, accused of treason as for some inexplicable reason he turned up in a North Korean uniform somewhere or other, but due to good work by counsel Bradford Dillman was eventually acquitted at his court martial. I found it a little hard to follow.
Manchurian Candidate was undoubtedly a gripping thriller and deserved the many awards it received. However, I found the opening (Korean War) segment unrealistic to the point of hilarity. It begins with Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) collecting his platoon from a brothel/bar, piling them into a truck and immediately leaving on a patrol (apparently with no objective). Their guide was a supposed South Korean interpreter (actually North Korean agent) who for some reason wore a Malaysian forage cap as a headdress. The patrol was captured without a shot and loaded into a helicopter (did the enemy have choppers? I've never heard of it). Brainwashing followed, and then the movie got interesting.
We can't leave biographies without a mention of MacArthur (Gregory Peck again). The events of the Inchon landing and MacArthur's subsequent dismissal are well described--what was missing was his refusal--on the advice of his intelligence chief, General Willoughby--to accept the presence of the Chinese intervention.
Finally, a mention of what I believe is the only British offering. A Hill in Korea was cheaply made (on Salisbury Plain) and is a mediocre effort. It is a typical story of an infantry patrol, out of touch, and overcoming opposition by tanks (a Comet substituted for an enemy T-34 here) and Chinese horsemen (Does anyone remember encountering horsed cavalry in Korea? I don't). Perhaps its major significance is that one ex-Fusilier Micklewaithe, recently discharged from the Royal Fusiliers after serving in Korea, was hired as a technical adviser and later given a small role in the film. After changing his name to Michael Caine, he rose to greater heights.
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|Title Annotation:||KOREAN WAR|
|Publication:||Esprit de Corps|
|Date:||Nov 1, 2005|
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