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.
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).
“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.
“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, “The 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.
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.
“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 there and again in Korean in “The Steel Helmet”).
“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 2010 Korean film “The Front Line.” “71” is another.
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.