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Robert J. Lentz. Korean War Filmography: 91 English Language Features through 2000.

Robert J. Lentz. Korean War Filmography: 91 English Language Features through 2000. McFarland, 2003. 496 pages; $45.00.

Impossible to Win

As a turning point in American history, the Korean War stood as an awkward transition between World War II and the Vietnam Conflict. This was the first time that American GIs fought under the United Nations flag, offering tangible credibility to President Truman's so-called doctrine of containment philosophy. It coined new words--brainwashing and turncoat--created a massive buildup of military might that endured for another two decades, and, by all accounts, became the first war that the United States lost.

At the same time, Hollywood churned out dozens of propaganda films to remind audiences that--in the end--truth, justice, and the Red-White-and-Blue would always prevail. But did they? Unlike the glory days of John Wayne, the Korean War photodramas took on an amorphous life of their own. While many titles supported this police action, other screenplays became critical, even caustic, about a confrontation that seemed impossible to win.

Perhaps that is why these motion pictures and the war, itself, have recessed into a state of national anonymity. However, as Robert J. Lenz has observed in his new study, Korean War Filmography: 91 English Language Features through 2000, Hollywood productions always serve as a mirror that allows a society introspection because their titles reflect the contemporary social attitudes even if the content is distorted, misrepresented, confused, or skewed.

As Mr. Lenz explains, the first Korean War titles appeared by early 1951 just seven months after the Thirty-Eighth Parallel crossing. Two cinematic potboilers, Korean Patrol and A Yank in Korea, sugarcoated the ground combat while waving Old Glory but The Steel Helmet pushed aside the usual patriotic bromides and focused on the unsightly truths every ground-pounder encountered. Other photodramas routinely followed and by July 1953 approximately twenty moving pictures were released generally with storylines that used stock newsreel footage, cuts from World War II archives, and two-dimensional characterizations. Overall, Mr. Lenz muses, most of these productions were minor achievements.

But during the next five years, from 1954-59, Hollywood--now standing on its hindsight stool--made over thirty movies that depicted the police action in realistic terms. Titles such as The Bridges at Toko-Ri, the McConnell Story, Battle Hymn, and Pork Chop Hill exposed some of the misery associated with fighting a see-saw war on foreign soil, thousands of miles from home. Other scripts, Men in War, The Hunters, Time Limit, and Men of the Fighting Lady restated America's commitment to stop communist expansion on this faraway peninsula.

Eventually, these motion pictures began their slow decline to obscurity as memories of this forgotten war faded from public attention, especially after United Artists released The Manchurian Candidate, a photoplay that captured the Red Scare's paranoid mood. After this 1962 film, the Korean Conflict, like the proverbial hot potato, was off-limits because no box office profits follow a lost cause. So for the next forty years, Hollywood would revive this theme approximately once every twelve months and by the end of the century--as Mr. Lentz has calculated--only ninety-one titles, in one form or another, qualified as straightforward Korean War screenplays.

To set the record straight, Mr. Lentz, like many of the McFarland filmography writers, squirreled himself inside cinema libraries--accoutered with white gloves and a pencil in hand--and viewed these Korean War screenplays and finally, produced a well-organized study with invaluable spin-offs. First, each title contains a cast and credit directory, detailed plot synopsis, strong evaluations, and some newspaper or magazine review segments. Also cited are chronological and production company listings, an accuracy and propaganda elements format, plus a section categorizing subject and theme. Lastly noted are scripts that peripherally deal with the police action, documentaries and armed forces in-house titles and--as the piece de resistance--motion pictures made in South Korea, those one-sided photodramas that depicted the three years of fighting in more biased terms.

Overall, Korean War Filmography stands as a finite study that takes a hard look at the nuts and bolts of this on-again, off-again relationship between Hollywood and a forgotten episode in American history. With dozens of stills, an elaborate bibliography, deep-down research, and lively analysis, Mr. Lentz's book--surely an indispensable reference tool--spells out every aspect of this long ago conflict in simple, direct terms. Clearly, his filmography stands as a work of noteworthy accomplishment.

Robert Fyne

Kean University
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Author:Fyne, Robert
Publication:Film & History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2003
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