All posts by reflectionsonjapanesecultureblog

Raised in rural southern Minnesota, schooled at James Madison College, University of Arizona, University of Toronto, and Berkeley. Resident on Potrero Hill in San Francisco since 1982. Author or coauthor of 20+ books, including Looking Through Taiwan, Angkor Life, and An Introduction to African Cinema. The site with my postings is japaneseculturereflectionsblog. I would delete this empty site if I knew how!

Korean War movies

Quite apart from its sizable tv audience, I’d guess that the 1970 movie “M*A*S*H” (the acronym for Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) is both the best known and most popular film about the American military in the Korean conflict (1951 to be more exact), and the only successful comedy, however black a comedy it is.

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Soon after it, I became a major admirer of the work of its director, Robert Altman, but could not share the general enthusiasm for “M*A*S*H” — not because of its gallows humor (which was actually quite mild) or its flouting of hierarchy and convention (also quite mild), but for the expectation that the audience would join the film’s physicians in finding sexual harassment delightful (and even good for the harassed). I also could never muster much enthusiasm for Donald Sutherland as a leading man, though he was cast as one by some estimable directors during the 1970s. I found Elliot Gould funnier than Sutherland in “M*A*S*H.” Altman clearly found him more simpatico (maybe because Gould refused to support Sutherland in attempting to get Altman fired during the shooting).

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“M*A*S*H” takes place in a field hospital. I don’t think that it has any battle scenes. “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962, directed by John Frankenheimer) also has scenes set in Korea and involving military personnel, but no battle scenes. Rather, captured GIs including Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey are brainwashed by the North Koreans and sent back to the US. The whole group says exactly the same words about Raymond (Harvey), and the movie showcases one of the great sick mother-son ever with Angela Lansbury chewing and spitting out the scenery as Raymond’s mother.

In a 2004 remake without much fizzle, directed by Jonathan Demme, Denzel Washington played the Frank Sinatra part and Meryl Streep Lansbury’s, and Live Schreiber Harvey’s, with an implant rather the conditioning.

There are loose body parts in “M*A*S*H” and unhinged brains in “Manchurian Candidate.” I’m pretty sure that the Korean film “Taegukgi Hwinalrimyeo” (The Brotherhood of War, 2004, written and directed by Kang Je-Gyu) is the goriest one. The considerable emotional punch of the film does not come from the explicit mayhem, however, but from the relationship between two brothers drafted into the army of South Korea. Let’s say that one, the elder, Jin-tae Lee (Jang Dong-gun), becomes an efficient killing machine, while the other, Jin-seok (Won Bin)), attempts to remain humane. Both kill many other Koreans and take risks that it is difficult not to categorize as “insane.” Although very, very, very graphic, the implausibility of either of them surviving some of their endeavors makes it impossible for me to say the film is “cinematic.” (I didn’t think they looked much like brothers in the film, but in the poster they do so more. And, as I wrote, for taking extreme action, they very much resemble each other. Also in stubbornness.)

The music (written by Dong-jun Lee) strikes me as bombastic and I don’t like the jiggling camera for some combat scenes, but, for me, the most gripping drama set amidst the Korean War has no visible Americans (though some allusions are made to them). And, unlike the American movies that are limited to a single time/place, “Tae Guk Gi” sweeps from before to after the combat, with plenty of atrocities and arrogance in between.

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“Tae Guk Gi” makes the American war movies that were hailed as providing new heights of “realism” seem tame in comparison, though they are less sprawling, and one of them, “Steel Helmet,” has major Korean characters (including a vicious one), rather than the faceless, demonized Other of the other American Korean War movies I’ve seen.

My favorite Korean War film is one that was made during it: Written and directed by Sam Fuller, “Steel Helmet” was released in February of 1951. The camera, often shooting from low angles, moved fluidly, and Fuller overcame a tiny budget ($100K) that allowed only ten days of shooting (in the studio and in Griffith Park, a not obviously Korean-looking locale!) by showcasing hard-headed individuals… and “Short Round” (William Chun) a Korean orphan who hero-worships the very hard-bitten Sgt. Zach (Gene Evans) who doesn’t want to be a surrogate father… or to be in the fix he is in with a lieutenant likely to get everyone killed and a ragtag group… and a captured North Korean major trying to undermine the commitment of a black medic and Japanese American sergeant to the Stars and Stripes. “Steel Helmet” is one of Fuller’s best films and takes questions of racism in the American ranks head on. The action scenes are obviously low-budget, but the personal dynamics in the shelter of a Buddhist temple make for something close to being a masterpiece.

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What I think is the best American movie set on a battlefield of the Korean War is “Pork Chop Hill.” It was directed in 1959 by Lewis Milestone who had made the definitive World War I movie (All Quiet on the Western Front” (the best picture Oscar-winner for 1930) and some fairly formulaic, propagandistic World War II ones, particularly “Edge of Darkness” (1943), “The North Star” (1943), “Purple Heart” (1944), “A Walk in the Sun” (1945) and “The Halls of Montezuma” (1950), as well as some other standouts “classics” including “The Red Pony” (1949), “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” (1946), “Of Mice and Men” (1939), “The General Died at Dawn” (1936), and “The Front Page” (1931).

Based on the book by solider/historian S. L. Marshall, and regarded by some as “the first modern war film,” “Pork Chop Hill” is the account of K Company, led by a stony Lt. Clemons (Gregory Peck), ordered to retake Pork Chop Hill from the Chinese in 1953, while negotiations to end hostilities are underway at Panmunjom. The hill has no particular strategic value, but those commanding Clemons believe that holding it will show US resolve to the communists. It is not for him or his men to understand, they’re just the ones dying there. Orders are orders, and theirs is not to reason why, but to stand and die — in considerable numbers— 107 of an original 135— if less considerable than the number of those trying to retake the hill after K Company takes it and digs in.

It is not just a matter of “face,” but of testing determination. It can easily seem childish “If you have it, I want it, if you want it, I want it,” but this is a dynamic not unique to the stalemated war in Korea!

The real Lt. Clemons was a technical advisor for the film, and Peck (whose production company made it) sought a gritty, realistic look. Peck is stalwart in battle, while being more than a little frustrated at the lack of promised flanking support and reinforcement needed to resist the teeming horde (the demonized enemy). Unlike Clemons, Peck had considerable support from George Shibata (the Japanese American second-in-command), black actors Bob Steele and Woody Strode, and white ones including Martin Landau and Rip Torn, et al.

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The Bridges at Toko-Ri,” (1954, directed by Mark Robson [Home of the Brave, Champion, Valley of the Dolls]) based on a best-selling novel by James Michener is darker than most big-budget, star-studded Hollywood movies. I regard it is the best American Korean War “action picture” particularly the final aerial assault on the heavily guarded bridges and the tense aircraft carrier landings.

There is a boring relationship (“the mushy stuff”) between William Holden and Grace Kelly slowing down the movie, as a bickering married couple. The real standout performance is Mickey Rooney’s as Mike Forney, a helicopter rescue pilot. Frederic March is also quite good as an Admiral keenly aware of ordering pilots into certain death missions. And Holden was always good as a fatalistic action figure who will glower and maybe bemoan, but eventually if ungraciously will bite the bullet. His wife wants him to be flying combat missions even less than he wants to be flying them.. and the movie demonizes the opposition for daring to defend territory and shoot back. (That anyone resisting American troops must be evil seems to be a part of The American Way, especially in movies, even if “Bridges” is soberer than many…. and though “Brotherhood of War” shows that the Koreans were plenty capable of demonizing each other!)

War Hunt” (1962, directed by Dennis Sanders) is notable for containing the screen debuts of Sydney Pollack (as Sgt. Van Horn) and of Robert Redford (whom Pollack was later direct in many movies), as the still-humane newly deployed Private Loomis, who is warned against associating with loose cannon Private Endore (John Saxon), who ventures out and carves up North Koreans at night (a sort of serial killer permitted by the US army). Endore has a young Korean orphan servant/charge whom he calls “Charlie” (Tommy Matsuda), perhaps influenced by the relationship between a gruff American long in the frontlines in Korea and an admiring Korean orphan boy in Samuel Fuller’s “Steel Helmet.”), though Sgt. Zac was grizzled, but not psychotic.

Loomis attempts to pry the boy away from Endore, but Endore is so determined to hold onto Charlie that he deserts to live in the mountains with him following the cease-fire that is still in effect (no peace treaty ever having been signed). In showing a psychotic American soldier and attempts to survive without committing war crimes, the movie looks forward to “Platoon” and “Casualties of War” from the Vietnam War canon. “War Hunt” was shot in the US on a very low budget and before Redford had developed as an actor, but is surprisingly effective.

Sam Fuller’s “Fixed Bayonets” is a more conventional war, talkier (sometimes dawdling) movie than “Steel Helmet,” which he made only a year before. Nonetheless, it provides an interesting portrait of a NCO who flunked out of Officer Cadet School because he could not lead facing the increasing certainty that command for a rear-action deployment of two platoons is going to devolve on him. Richard Basehart (:a Strada, He Walked by Night, The Brothers Karamzov), who played corporal Deno, who is thrust into command by the death of the officers of the two platoons, was a master of portraying neuroticism. Here he is brave and Gene Evans prepares him as best he can (being less egotistical but not less tough than he was for Fuller in “Steel Helmet.”) Basically, it’s Thermopylae in the snows of the Sierra Nevadas (that are supposed to be mountains in Korea) with an American man Rising to the Occasion. The movie has outstanding cinematography by Lucien Ballard and a once popular soundtrack by Roy Webb. And a very brief appearance near the end (but enough to get on the poster reproduced here!) of James Dean.

BTW, the US 1st Infantry Division did not serve in Korea, Fuller names his General and Regimental Commander after his the men he served under in WWII, service portrayed I “The Big Red One” (1980) Terry de la Mesa Allen, Sr. and George A. Taylor

Sayonara” (1957, directed by Joshua Logan [Mr. Roberts]), based on another James Michener bestseller is mostly about US servicemen on R&R in Japan during the Korean war and breaking the taboos of interracial romances. It was nominated for 10 Oscars, including best picture, netted 4, including best supporting actor (Red Buttons) and best supporting actress (Umeki Miyoshi).The cinematography of Ellsworth Fredericks and acting of Marlon Brando garnered nominations (the latter, quite undeserved, as Brando seemed to be sleepwalking through the part as a Southern pilot while some of his comrades in arma EW discovering another world).. Ricardo Montalban’s kabuki actor providing editorial comments is best forgotten, and this is far more an “American occupation of Japan” movie (and “Orientalism exoticism”) than a “Korean War movie,” even though the American men are part of the war machine.

“All the Young Men” (1960, written and directed by Hal Bartlett) has Sidney Poitier as a sergeant put in command of a small detachment of Marines very much in harm’s way in the snows of 1951 Korea. There is, of course, a hardcore Southern bigot (Paul Richard), a busted-down rival preferred by the men (a way-too-old-for-the-part Alan Ladd) along with the usual wild mix of Hollywood war movies, including Swedish heavyweight champion (at the time) Ingemar Johansson, smart-mouthed New Yorker Mort Sahl, teenage hearthrob of the time James Darren (Gidget, etc. and, the next year, “The Guns of Navarone”), and a Native American with the subtle name “Hunter” (Mario Alcalde). The movie is very, very predictable and less interesting than the much earlier (1949) “Home of the Brave,” when the burden of proving the black soldier more than the white soldier’s equal was carried by James Edwards (in an unlikely WWII situation).

The Hunters” (1958, directed by Dick Powell [The Enemy Below]) is based on a superb book by “writer’s writer” James Salter, who was a fighter pilot in Korea. The aerial part of the movie (the first part) is good, but when hotdog F-86 pilot Robert Wagner and weary (heavy-lidded) veteran pilot Robert Mitchum are shot down and have to make their way cross country together, the movie becomes a hokey yawner. “Grounded” it is in every sense! For that matter, the adultery soap opera back at the base in Japan is also very phoned-in. Mitchum and May Britt have no chemistry. At least Wagner can irritate Mitchum a bit! The best parts are the airborne parts.

Douglas Sirk’s recurrent leading man, Rock Hudson (e.g., Written on the Wind), appeared in “Battle Hymn” in 1957. The movie about a guilt-wracked WWII bomber pilot (he accidentally bombed a Japanese orphanage) turned minister who reups for the Korean War received a Golden Globe (the award of the Hollywood Foreign Press) as “Best Film Promoting International Understanding”! It is based on the story of Colonel Dean ‘Killer’ Hess (played by Hudson). Its main interest for someone who has seen a lot of 1940s Hollywood movies is that it features Dan Duryea as an amiable can-do sergeant loved by the children(!). The story drips treacle (do I need to say more than the word “orphans”?), though it also has some good aerial bits.

Battle Circus,” directed by Richard Brooks from his own novel in 1953 is a very bad adumbration of “M*A*S*H” with Humphrey Bogart staffing a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital and unconvincingly romancing June Allyson, band with attempts at humor falling flat. “The Rack” with Paul Newman and “Sgt. Stryker” with Lee Marvin show legal actions for former prisoners of war of the North Koreans. I haven’t seen the Howard Hughes movie (his last) starring Robert Mitchum and Ann Blyth, or the1986 Dutch/South Korean”Field of Honor.” One I’d like to see is the 210aa Korean film “The Front Line.”

Far and away the worst Korean War movie I’ve seen, however, is “Inchon” with Laurence Olivier failing to convince in the role of Douglas MacArthur that Gregory Peck had mastered in the less fanciful but still far from good Korean War-focused biopic “MacArthur.” Financed by Moonies, “Inchon” is in league with “Battlefield Earth” in more than suspect financing in being a serious competitor for the label “worst movie ever.”

Also bearing mention are some movies featuring American veterans of the Korea War returned to the US: A Hatful of Rain, Manchurian Candidate, In Cold Blood, Shock Corridor, The Big Lebowski, Big Fish.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

Also see my list of the best WWII Movies here.

 

The Best World War II dramas about combatants

There are a very large number of movies set in and around the Second World War, including the various holocaust/Jewish survival movies such as

The Shop on Main Street (directed by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos, 1965)

Europa, Europa (directed by Agnieszka Holland, 1990)

The Pianist (directed by Roman Polanski, 2002)

Misa’s Fugue (directed by Sean Gaston, 2012)

Opansi put (directed by Mate Reija, 1963)

Schindler’s List (directed by Stephen Spielberg, 1993)

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (directed by Mark Herman, 2008)

Higher Principle (directed by Jiri Krejic, 1960)

Devils on the Doorstep (directed by Jian Wen, 2000)

The Diary of Anne Frank (directed by George Stevens, 1959)

The Cranes Are Flying (directed by Mikhail Kalatozov, 1960)

The Seventh Cross (directed by Fred Zinnemann, 1944)

 

and many about the traumas of war on civilians, including

Jeux Interdits (Forbidden Games, directed by René Clément, 1952)

Two Women (directed by Vittorio de Sica, 1961)

Malèna (directed by Giuseppe Tornatore, 2000)

Au revoir, les enfants (1987), and Lacombe Lucien (1974), directed by Louis Malle

Empire of the Sun (directed by Stephen Spielberg, 1987)

Mrs. Miniver (directed by William Wyler, 1942)

Hope and Glory (directed by John Boorman, 1987)

Army (1944), Port of Blossoms (1943 and 24 Eyes (1954) (directed by Kinoshita Keisuke)

The Fifth Seal (directed by Zoltán Fábri, 1976)

Grave of the Fireflies (anime directed by Takahata Isao, 1988)

Don’t Cry, Peter (directed by France Stiglic, 1964)

plus Night of the Shooting Stars (the Taviani brothers, 1982), also involving confused noncombatant males in an Italian village,

This Land Is Mine (directed by Jean Renoir, 1943) with a French coward finding courage,

Hangmen Also Die (directed by Fritz Lang, 1943) with a Czech family

Closely Watched Trains (directed by Jirí Menzel, 1966) with a young Czech rising to the occasion and sabotage

Written Off (directed by Aleksander Djordevic, 1974)

Au Revoir, Les Enfants (directed by Louis Malle, 1987)

Hiroshima, Mon Amout (directed by Alain Resnais, 1959)

and some Chinese films with longer historical arcs, even though the war there began earlier than in Europe (and Siberiade, which also has a long temporal span)

 

I have also excluded prisoner camp/escape movies such as

Robert Bresson’s masterpiece “A Man Escapes” (Un condamné à mort s’est échappé ou Le vent souffle où il veut)

The Great Escape

Stalag 17

King Rat

Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence

The Bridge on the River Kwai

The Railway Man

 

I have excluded these war-related genres and also movies focused on commanders such as Rommel (The Desert Fox) and Patton, and those involving Humphrey Bogart reluctantly getting involved (Casablanca, To Have and Have Not) to focus on dramas centering on combatants (air, land, and sea). I am saving comedies for another list.

My final prefatory note is that I am well aware that the three of the four most recent entries of my list all have some vociferous detractors. There are bases for criticism, though the vehemence with which some have been pressed puzzle me.

(15) Like “Saving Private Ryan,” “Enemy of the Gate” (2001), directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, starts by throwing the audience into the chaos of war, in this case the German attack on Stalingrad. The terror of the evacuees is compellingly portrayed, but a hero is needed. In the rather unlikely person of the almost-too-handsome Jude Law as a shepherd from the Ural Mountains, one is manufactured. The propaganda machine is nearly as much of a focus in the movie as is the duel of wits between the Soviet champion Vassily Zaitsev (Law) and an aristocratic German officer sent to eliminate him, Major Koenig (Ed Harris). Both are superb marksmen, so the duel ultimately depends not on their marksmanship but on information. Gabriel Thomson’s Sasha is insufficiently realized, and I think that the rivalry for Tania.(Rachel Weisz) between private solider Zaitsev and officer Danilov (Joseph Fiennes), who is his de facto publicist, is a distraction. Bob Hoskins’s scenery-chewing Kruschev is not a distraction, because the considerations of building a hero to rally the people of Russia is absolutely central (in both Soviet and Nazi warmakers’ views). The cinematography and set construction would be hard to fault.

(14) The great American poet of violence, Sam Peckinpah, also directed a duel within an army movie. From the title, “Cross of Iron,” it is obvious that the army is the German one. It has Maxmillian Schell was the well-connected, vainglorious captain sending a subordinate who sees through him, is considerably more competent and cares about his men (James Coburn) to be eliminated. (James Mason is quite unlike Lee Marvin as the colonel in command, however.) In my view, it drags often and is inferior to “Attack!” The movie about Germans I’m including is the ultimate submarine movie Das Boot, directed by Wolfgang Petersen in. I have not seen the director’s cut, and my memory of seeing the movie in its theatrical release in 1981 is hazy. Human beings in a small underwater metal tube commanded by a savvy professional not wrapped up in Nazi ideology is also on view in “The Enemy Below.” The focus of “Das Boot” is entirely on the German sailors. If I remembered it better or watched the director’s cut, it would probably make my list.

(13) The earliest Hollywood movie that I’ve seen that shows some real agony rather than the “natural” triumph of the American military in WWII is William A. Wellman’s The Story of G.I. Joe (1945). The ersatz heartiness of Burgess Meredith as Ernie Pyle and some sentimentality of his narration (and the mascot dog) slightly undercut the gritty realism. There is the usual wide range of American types thrown together and Robert Mitchum as a brave and resourceful and caring lieutenant (later promoted to captain) whose unit the famous correspondent keeps finding in the Italian campaign. (The cast was heavily populated by recent G.I.s and war correspondents playing themselves.) The pace seems slow after decades of subsequent WWII movies, but the grand-daddy remains moving in my opinion. I find it more realistic and less sentimental than John Huston’s documentary “The Battle of San Pietro,” noting that it was heavily censored—and the combat scenes staged/recreated. And less sentimental than John Ford’s “Battle of Midway,” the other heralded US combat documentary from the war.)

(12) That Clint Eastwood shot a movie almost entirely in Japanese is pretty astounding. That it is very good is not astounding. I think that in general he should empower an editor to prune his movies, though I didn’t feel this about “Letters from Iwo Jima” (2006). The movie shows the Japanese infantrymen as regular guys who wish that they were home, yet are often courageous, while showing a very authoritarian (not to mention suicide-drenched) officer culture, even for a military culture. Though Gen. Kuribayashi  (Ken Watanabe) tells his men not to kill themselves but to kill the enemy, he is not immune to the cult of the noble death and of suicide rather than surrender. And the whole exercise of defending the island (with undertrained as well as underarmed troops) is suicidal (the Japanese running out of ammunition and food, having to subsist on a diet of worms). (It is grim, but not in comparison to the Japanese movies occupying the top three slots on my list!)

(11) The concluding piece of a trilogy, Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes and Diamonds (1958) has haunting scenes of a bombed-out church, a chase, and a liaison formed near the end of combat in Poland. The star, Zbigniew Cybulski, was a charismatic young actor whose early death cemented his reputation as “the Polish James Dean.” It has some slow stretches, but is very visually striking. The preceding (1957) “Kanal” set largely in the sewers of Warsaw as the Red Army waits for the Nazis to kill off rebels is also very impressive. (The First, “A Generation” [1955} is about Nazi-occupied Poland, but not about combatants.)

(10) Terrence Malik’s adaptation of The Thin Red Line (199) by James Jones (whose From Here to Eternity and the great Fred Zinneman film, though about soldiers and ending with the Japanese attack on Hawaiian military installations on Dec. 7. 1941 I don’t consider a World War II novel or film) is also very visually striking with some slow stretches that seem like dawdling for those seeking nonstop action sequences. Using different techniques than Spielberg’s in “Saving Private Ryan,” Malik plunges the viewer into ground-level action (and the pauses with death continuing to lurk). It also contains revelatory performances by James Caviezel as Private Witt and Sean Penn as Sergeant Welsh.

(9) Stephen Spielberg’s many detractors level the charge of sentimentality at the last part of Saving Private Ryan (1999), too. The Omaha Beach landing in it is the most compelling part and far superior to depictions in other movies (such as “The Longest Day” and “The Big Red One”), and it juxtaposes intense action scenes with genuine character development, including Matt Damon’s title character’s, Jeremy Davies’s clerk, and Tom Hanks’s Captain Miller.

(8) I think the best WWII straight-ahead heroic action flick is The Guns of Navarone, directed by J. Lee Thompson in 1961. Based on a hugely successful novel by Alistair MacLean (who also wrote Ice Station Zebra and The Eagle Has Landed, both of which were turned into less memorable action movies). Gregory Peck was at his most strong, laconic, and  heroic, leading a motley crew on a seemingly impossible mission (to neutralize the title artillery on a Nazi fortress on an Aegean island). Anthony Quinn was flamboyant and ethnic (Greek), David Niven was wry (maybe even flippant) as an explosives expert. Both were in top form in their specialties. I have not included the later, somewhat similar raid by “The Dirty Dozen” directed by Robert Aldrich, despite the performance by Lee Marvin, mostly out of repugnance for a mission to incinerate civilians, which even wives of German officers and local French prostitutes were.

(7) Robert Aldrich’s Attack! is primarily a duel movie, though the duel is between American army (reserve) officers, the politically well-connected cowardly captain played by Eddie Albert and the seething lieutenant played by Jack Palance, who promises to come back and rip out the captain’s heart if he again fails to provide support for a platoon sent into the lion’s mouth. The combat scenes are excellent, and both the interior and exterior black-and-white cinematography of Joseph Biroc are notable, but it is the performances of Albert, Palance, Buddy Ebsen, William Smithers, and Lee Marvin that make the movie, overcoming some lame attempts at comic relief and an ending I find difficult to credit. I also think that Aldrich’s sardonic 1970 “Too Late the Hero” with Michael Caine and Cliff Robertson is very good and undeservedly forgotten.

(6) In my view, one of the best WWII action movies is the little-heralded 1965 John Frankenheimer movie The Train. I enjoy movies about duels of wits (such as The Enemy Below, Enemy at the Gate) and this one features a formidable German officer played by Paul Scofield and a resourceful French railroad controller played by Burt Lancaster. It has great railroad sequences, including a real crash. The DVD has a fascinating commentary track by John Frankenheimer (who reported that Lancaster insisted on doing all his own stunts). Jeanne Moreau needlessly slows things down, but Lancaster and Scofield are superb, as is the black-and-white cinematography by Jean Tournier and Walter Wottitz.

(5) Although the glamorous fly-boys are more a staple of movies about World War I than about World War II, and about the Korean War than World War II, they are not lacking altogether. The Air Force entry on my list, however, goes to one that does not glamorize. Twelve o’clock High (1949), one of the many movies starring Gregory Peck that was directed by Henry King. Peck plays a hard-driving general (with the unsbubtle name Savage) whipping into a shape a demoralized unit and pushing himself to breakdown. The supporting players, including Dean Jagger’s that got him a well-deserved Oscar, are convincing, but it is Peck who makes “Twelve o’clock High” a masterpiece.

(Peck also anchored “Pork Chop Hill” the greatest American-made Korean war movie. And he carried the unjustly forgotten “The Purple Plain” as well.)

(4) Roberto Rosselini’s Paisà[/n] is more uneven than “Twelve o’clock High.” It portrays a series of episodes in different locales from Sicily to the Po River estuary as the American Army pushed the German one north through Italy. The focus is more on relationships between the American troops and the Italians being liberated (but in dire straits) than about American-German combat and might be consigned to the “effects on civilians” subgenre. The battle scenes in the marshes are very unusual, though the most memorable sequence involves an African American MP and a desperately poor young boy who steals his boots when the MP passes out drunk in the rubble of Naples.

(2 and 3) Some of Rosselini’s film has a documentary look, some is actorly. Most of the movies on my list get down and dirty. The top spot goes to two very extreme (hyper-real?) 1950s movies directed by Kon Ichikawa, Fires on the Plain (Nobi, 1959) and The Harp of Burma (Biruma no tategoto, 1956). “Fires” portrays the desperation of Japanese soldiers on the Philippines at the end of the war, a tubercular one (Tamura, indelibly portrayed by Eiji Funakoshi) in particular, and “Harp” a haunted Japanese solider (the lute-playing Mizushima, portrayed by Shôji Yasui) burying the dead in Burma after failing to convince a company of his compatriates dug-into a mountain redoubt to surrender. “Harp” is more lyrical, though both are desolating reflections on life and death, compassion and ruthlessness.

(1) “The Human Condition III: A Soldier’s Prayer,” directed by Kobayashi Masaki has a harrowing performance by Nakadai Tatsuya dying in the snow trying to get home from Soviet captivity. The whole trilogy is gripping.

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©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Also see my overview of Korean War movies here.

Best San Francisco Movies

My list of best San Francisco novels begat a list of favorite San Francisco movies. I’m including IMDB(1-10) ratings after the year to provide a consensus view of quality. I’m weighting San Francisco visibility more.

Vertigo (1958) 8.4

5739.jpgAlfred Hitchcock’s movie about obsession (James Stewart’s character’s) recently topped the decennial Sight & Sound list of greatest movies, so had better be atop this list! Along with Stewart’s relentlessness and Kim Novak’s vulnerability, this has a lot of San Francisco sites, including the top of Telegraph Hill, Madge’s Russian Hill apartment, the Legion of Honor, the Mission Dolores cemetery (where the alcalde after whom my street is named is buried), the long-gone Ernie’s and the mission at San Juan Bautista with a tower (not an insignificant plot element!) added.And the Bernard Hermann romantic score!

Bullitt (1968) 7.5

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The chase makes no geographic sense, but I like that it includes my neighborhood (Potrero Hill). Steve McQueen is dour (supposed to be cool). I don’t remember the plot except that the smarmy Robert Vaughan is not to be trusted.

Dark Passage (1947) 7.6

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I most love the ending, which is set far south of San Francisco (or Hollywood, for that matter), and the nightmare trek up and down outside stairways and Lauren Bacall’s (character’s) apartment.

The Lady from Shanghai (1948) 7.7

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Playland had burned down before I moved to San Francisco, but the hall of mirrors shootout is forever. As is the glamour of Rita Hayworth, as in “Gilda.” Somehow I believe her character, but not Orson Welles’s.

The Conversation (1974) 7.9

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An aural stakeout in Union Square with a then-unknown Harrison Ford, plus Gene Hackman becoming unhinged for Francis Ford Coppola (a short walk from Zoetrope).

Thieves’ Highway (1949) 7.7

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Another vanished location: the waterfront produce market in Jules Dassin’s noir with Lee J. Cobb practicing for “On the Waterfront” and Richard Conte trying to be a leading man.

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) 7.4

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I used to have a desk with a view across Grove Street of City Hall (home of what we called “the dome mentality”), where the pods take over in Philip Kaufman’s stylish remake that featured Leonard Nimoy (starred Donald Sutherland).

D.O.A. (1950) 7.4

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Edmond O’Brien wanders the streets of The City (as we like to capitalize it), knowing that he has taken a lethal dose of poison in Rudolf Maté’s noir/thriller. O’Brien plays an accountant from Banning (inland southern California) on vacation. The movie begins with a tracking shot in police HQ (before the Hall of Justice was built). Much of the movie was shot in LA…

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) 7.3

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This installment was inspired by Humphrey, the hump-backed whale that wandered into the Bay migrating from Baja to Alaska, and is fun for all, but especially for San Franciscans.

“What’s Up, Doc?” (1972) 7.8

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I don’t remember much about Barbara Streisand’s second movie, a screwball comedy directed by Peter Bogdanovich with Babs channeling the actress who tied with her Oscar for her first movie and Ryan O’Neal trying to channel Cary Grant. In addition to the “Bring Up Baby” resonances, there was Madeline Kahn’s debut. There is a parody of the “Bullit” chase and the TWA facilities of SFO’s South Terminal (now Terminal 1 with no TWA).

 and ten more:

Pal Joey (1957) 6.8 (Rita Hayorth’s character’s yacht)

Interview with the Vampire (1994) 7.6 (the interview itself)

Petulia (1968) 7.3

Sudden Fear (1952) 7.5

Experiment in Terror (1962) 7.3 the then-new, now demolished Candlestick Park

House on Telegraph Hill (1951) 7

Where Danger Lives (1950) 6.7

Point Blank (1967) 7.4

48 Hours (1982) 6.9

plus

Time After Time (1979) 7.2

Towering Inferno (1974) 6.9

Mrs. Doubtfire (1993) 7.2

Blue Jasmine (2013) 7.3

1958 somewhat revisionist western, “The Big Country”

I like both Gregory Peck and Jean Simmons a lot, so was inclined to like William Wyler’s “The Big Country” (which I saw on tv many decades ago). In some ways it is a revisionist western, somewhat like “High Noon,” not as radical as “The Searchers,” or even “The Gunfighter” (with a mustachioed Peck), the first of the revisionist westerns of the 1950s.

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Peck played James McKay, a Yankee sea captain, who has come west to wed Patricia Terill (Caroll Baker), the devoted (to an unhealthy degree) daughter of doting cattle baron, Major Henry Terrill (the gravel-voiced Charles Bickford). McKay refuses to prove his masculinity in public, though the audience is privy to demonstrations his fiancée is not, including fighting the major’s foreman, Steve Leech, played by a surly Charlton Heston, in a memorable knock-down, drag-out fistfight shot from far above. There is also a God’s eye (well, at least canyon rim top) view of the final one-on-one gunfight between the stubborn patriarchs (Burl Ives, winning his Oscar). There are more conventional, closer-up shots of the duel between Peck and the eldest, weasliest son of Rufus Hannassey, “Buck” (Chuck Connors).

None of the four Hannasey boys is a testimonial to good child-raising. As the eldest, “Buck” had to have had more time with a mother. His father deplores him, but has to have a major share of the blame for Buck’s character. Rufus otherwise seems a perspicacious observer and interpreter of what is unsaid. And he is either the only one who remembers despicable deeds by the major, or the only one with the courage to allude to them. (I don’t know what the major did that so riled Hannassey, and Patricia certainly won’t listen to anything disparaging of her father.)

In addition to the Hannassey’s Blanco Canyon (shot in Kern County, California’s Red Rock State Park) and the major’s vast holdings (shot in the Sierra foothills east of Stockton), there is a river with year-round water, the Big Muddy, on land owned by Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), who allows access to the water to both the Terrill and Hannassy cattle. She lives in town and teaches school, the ranch she inherited (form her grandfather; I have no idea what happened to her parents) is fallow (well, ungrazed). She and Pat and the major are friends, but she abides by her grandfather’s promise to allow the Hannasseys access to the Big Muddy.

Having resisted offers to sell from both sides, Julie precipitously accepts an offer from McKay to buy the property. Steve and his henchmen drive Hannassey cattle away, though neither Julie nor McKay would support this. (I don’t think Steve knows the deed had changed hands, and am not sure whether he is acting on his own or following orders from the major.)

Buck seizes Julie. The major’s mini-army is set to go in the narrow canyon to rescue her. McKay knows this is just a pretext and goes in himself to get her out. Violence follows, if less than the threatened “river of blood.”

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McKay is as stubborn as the two patriarchs, though trying to make peace between two clans that do not want that and not at all given to public posturing, in contrast to the senior antagonists and their junior ones (Heston and Connors). Peck was very, very good in the role (fresh from the monomania of Captain Ahab), as were the old enemy patriarchs Ives and Bickford played.

I can’t see McKay being so smitten by the superficial Patricia as to give up his way of life and go to wed her in her own (that is, her father’s) turf. It is obvious that Julie is smarter and more compatible. Do they love each other? I’m not sure, and though they are together at the end, there is no indication they will live together happily ever after, or at all. And the heirs of both Terrill and Hannassey ranches are less prudential than the patriarchs, and it is difficult to foresee McKay keeping the peace that he has tenuously established by pushing the old men to fight each other rather than to sacrifice surrogates to their enmity.

Veteran cinematographer Franz Planer (who was Oscar-nominated for Wyler-directed “Roman Holiday” and “The Children’s Hour”) did good work. Presumable the shooting from up and away was Wyler’s decision. Jerome Moross’s rousing western score (kicking in in the opening credits; thankfully this is one 1950s western without a ballad!) foreshadowed scores by Elmer Bernstein and Ennio Morricone, and was Oscar-nominated. (Dimitri Tiomkin won for “The Old Man and the Sea.”)

The adaptation to a big-screen, all-star, 165-minute-long movie from a story by Donald Hamilton (creator of Matt Helm) was credited to Wyler and to Jessamyn West, the author of Friendly Persuasion, which Wyler had directed an adaptation of (not crediting her work beyond the novel) in 1956. It centers on a pacifist who was played by Gary Cooper (who took up arms in Howard Hawks’s “Sgt. York”).

I’m still not sure that Burl Ives deserved the Oscar for his part here, but for me the alternative choice would have been his “Big Daddy” in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” He definitely peaked in 1958! His Golden Globe for 1958 was also for his role in “The Big Country,” btw. And Wyler went on (even before shooting was complete) to Rome to direct Heston in the title role of “Ben Hur,” for which both won Oscars.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

 

 

Clint Eastwood’s film in Japanese: “Letters from Iwo Jima”

One of the most surprising WWII movies projects is the 2006 one almost entirely in Japanese that Clint Eastwood directed and co-produced,, “Letters from Iwo Jima” (Iōjima Kara no Tegami), the companion piece to his “Flags of Our Fathers” (which is more about the post-combat experiences of the US Marines in the iconic photo raising the US flag at Iwo Jima, which we now know was a staged reraising…). Surprisingly, the movie in Japanese did better at the US box office than the one in English had, as well as receiving more critical acclaim. (And it did very well in Japan, being #1 at the box office there for five weeks.)

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The movie opens in 2005, excavating buried letters then flashes back to 1944, when Pvt. Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a baker in civilian life with a wife and young daughter rashly advocates surrendering to the numerically (and in firepower) superior US marines. Captain Tanida (Takumi Bando) beats him for this offense, though Tanida is stopped by the newly arrived commander, Gen. Kuribayashi Tadamichi (Ken Watanabe), who does not want to waste men like that.

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Kuribayashi learns that the Japanese fleet he has counted on for support (or evacuation!) has been destroyed. Kuribayashi knows the beach will be taken, and has his troops dig in (tunneling supplementing the caves already of Mount Suribachi on the island).

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The movie shows the Japanese infantrymen as regular guys who wish that they were home, yet are often courageous, while showing a very authoritarian (not to mention suicide-drenched) officer culture, even for a military culture. Though Gen. Kuribayashi tells his men not to kill themselves but to kill the enemy, he is not immune to the cult of the noble death and of suicide rather than surrender. And the whole exercise of defending the island (with undertrained as well as underarmed troops) is suicidal (the Japanese running out of ammunition and food, having to subsist on a diet of worms). (It is grim, but not in comparison to the Japanese movies occupying the top slots on my list!)

The movie shows that Japanese propaganda demonized Americans, just as American propaganda demonized Japanese.

BTW the movie was mostly shot in inland California (around Barstow) with only one day shooting on Iwo Jima. Though shot in color, the color is so washed out that it often seems to be in black and white.

Eastwood was nominated for the best director Oscar, he and Steven Spielberg for best picture. The sound editing won the Oscar and Iris Yamashita and Paul Haggis were nominated for bext original screenplay (somewhat strangely in that it is heavily based on Gen. Tadamachi’s posthumous “Gyokusai sōshikikan.”

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

An early post-colonial novel about internal exile

The back cover of the republication of Beer in the Snooker Club by Wauigh Ghali (1928?-69) claims that “if Holden Caulfield had grown up in 1950s Cairo rather than in New York City, he would have found himself a kindred spirit in Ram Bey. I think any resemblances between Beer in the Snooker Club and Catcher in the Rye are very superficial. There is some resemblance between Salinger’s Mr. Spencer and the Londoner to whom Ram has a letter of introduction, Dr. Dungate, but Ram is older than Holden, far more sexually experienced and assured, and far more politically aware. Both despite the phoniness of others and of their cultures, but Ram is far more aware of his own phoniness than Holden is. (And both novels meander a bit, though Ghali’s has characters who are developed more than Salinger’s, who are IMHO props for his solipsistic narrator.)

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Moreover, Ram’s ethnicity is not fudged as Salinger’s Holden Caulfiield’s is: Ram is a Copt, for him an ethnicity with no religious content, but a threatened minority status in Nasser’s pan-Arab (Muslim though not Islamist) autocracy. The militaristic Muslim state targeted the cosmopolitan (partly Jewish, but not only Jewish) elite, many of whose members (including the hanger-on Ram, whose dead father lost all his wealth before the revolution of 1952) did not speak Arabic. He was educated in Anglophone schools with Francophone relatives condescending to the Muslim majority, the fellaheen (now more commonly Romanized as fellahin). The books he read were English, and before going there, Ram was a fervent anglophile… and unable to feel at home in either the old or the new Egypt with colonial or post-colonial oppressions.

A sponger from the old elite class, Ram is in love with a communist Jewish woman from a very rich family (that has lived in Egypt for five generations, though she is the first member of it to speak Arabic), Edna Salva. Edna pays for the expenses of both Ram and his pure-hearted schoolmate Font going to England. Font has an affair with one of Dr. Dungate’s daughters; Ram sleeps with another visiting Egyptian, Didi (whom I think is also Coptic, as Font also is), even while being supported by Edna. (and only years later does Ram tell Edna that he had joined the communist party in the UK, explaining: “this knowledge of history and politics and literature had to be channelled towards something or other if I weren’t to go mad.”

Back in Egypt after the Suez Crisis of 1956, Ram gathers evidence of torture of communists and other opponents of the Nasser regime, cadges drinks, etc. from his affluent schoolmates (NOT Font who takes a job attending to the Cairo Snooker Club owned by another affluent classmate, Jameel) and proposes to both Edna and Didi in quick succession.

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The narrator is outraged by the difficulty of getting an exit visa from Egypt and, then, by his treatment by British immigration officials, though with help from Dr. Dungate he manages to get a student visa to extend the ten-day tourist visa on which he arrived in London.

There is a lot of alcohol in the book, not just in the title (at the club, Ram adds Vodka and whisky to the local (Stella) beer approximate the British Bass Pale Ale, which is unavailable in Egypt). I didn’t notice any mention of religious opposition to or interdiction of alcoholic beverages in the semi-autobiographical novel. (Ghali, like Ram an impoverished member of a non-Muslim, non-Arabic-using rentier family, attended Victoria College in his native Alexandria and in Cairo in the late 1940s, spent some time without obtaining a degree at the Sorbonne in the early 1950s, and lived partly in West Germany, partly in England after leaving Egypt a second time and for good in 1958.)

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(Muizz Street, photographed by Joonas Plann)

As a tale of disillusionment and alienation, Beer in the Snooker Club is bitterly funny (unlike Holden, Ram has a sense of humor, and considers joking what Egyptians do best), though I find it difficult to accept that it provides “uncanny parallels to today’s Egypt” (as Negar Azmi claimed in the New York Times, 9/11/11 at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/11/books/review/what-do-egypts-writers-do-now.html?pagewanted=all). The lack of jobs and the concomitant exodus of many of the educated after the failure of “the Arab Spring” is a parallel, if not a surprising, let alone an uncanny one, to the stunted social revolution of 1952. (Azmi also invokes Holden Caulfield and treat Ram as “articulat[ing] the identity crisis of a generation,” as Holden did. (Oddly, neither the back cover of the Vintage reissue nor Azmi’s essay mention Cairene Noble laureate, sometimes socialist (Wafd) and always anti-Islamist Naguib Mahfouz, although Azmi mentions Alaa al-Aswany’s mega-best-seller in Arabic, The Yacoubian Building, and Lexy Bloom (on the back cover) mentions Ben Lerner’s modern classic of young male disillusionment, Leaving the Atocha Station. In its Africa-to-Britian trajectory, apter comparison would have been to Sudanese (upriver) somewhat-later novel of return from England, Season of Migration to the North, by Ghali’s contemporary Tayeb Saleh (1928-2009) or to the novels of Francophone Cairo-born novelist of Greek Orthodox ancestry predecessor, Albert Cossery (1913-2008), such as The Jokers and Proud Beggars; Cossery maintained that laziness was not a vice, but a necessary basis for contemplation, a sentiment Ram might have shared had he read French instead of English).

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

More Albert Cossery fiction

Nothing much happens in The House of Certain Death, first published in French in 1950as La maison de la mort certaine) by Egyptian-born French writer Albert Cossery (1913-2008). Surprisingly (or willfully!) it ends with a rabble-will-rise invocation by the tenement tenants of venal landlord Si Khalil. It is especially surprising in that before that they could not agree about anything, constantly quarreling and often cursing each other while, with good cause, fearing the building will collapse. Before the solidarity imagined for the end, the best those living there hoped was: “The house will fall on our heads, but there are a lot of us. We shan’t all be killed. Some will survive and know how to avenge the others” (Abdel Al’s articulation of their fatalism)

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Cossery mentioned reading Gorky in prison, but Gorky (along with French “naturalism”) also seems to have influenced Cossery. Or at least I don’t see the form as much influenced by indigenous Arab models… This might be because of my ignorance, but I don’t think it is.

Cossery aimed to show “limitless ugliness of life” in an Egyptian city slum and certainly succeeded in that: there’s lots of degradation and decay on view (from back in the reign of King Farouk).

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My favorite Cossery fiction available in English is his third novel, The Lazy Ones, (first published in French in 1948 as Les fainéants dans la vallée fertile) in which Serag mystifies everyone by seeking to break loose from his eternally sleeping family and fantasizing about work. Outside his family everyone he encounters wonders why he would want to work if he didn’t have to. Inside the family, repose is valued more highly than sex. The servant Hoda, whom Serag’s brothers lust after, wants Serag, who is not interested, regarding sex as a drain of his limited energy that should be devoted to leaving the house of sleepers and finding work

There is also Mimi, a painter who thinks artists must be pederasts and who longs for his former classmate of Serag’s older brother Rafik (who in turn misses the prostitute he almost married and is contemptous of Mimi, even suggesting that he isn’t a real invert).

And the father (Hafez) is trying to arrange a marriage despite his growing hernia (as large as a watermelon). The matchmaker telles people that he has diabetes. In her view only righ people could eat enough sweets to become diabetic, to that this is a selling point.

 

©2017, Stephen Murray

Also see my review of Proud Beggars. Cossery’s forebearers were Greek Orthodox, not Muslim; all eight of his novels were about Arabs.