Tag Archives: Korean War

The other Korean War film Sam Fuller made in 1951

For being a writer-director who did things his own way, with minimal budgets and production values… and for being quite flamboyant, Samuel Fuller (1912-1997) has long been a favorite of auterist film critics. Although I think major defects in his work have been ignored by those mesmerized by Fuller’s personality, I also think that there are almost always some things of interest in his movies.

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I also think that, in 1951, while the Korean War was still raging, Fuller made one of the very best movies set in that conflict, “The Steel Helmet” with Gene Evans as a crusty sergeant. Later that same year, Fuller wrote and directed “Fixed Bayonets,” which also has as a crusty WWII-veteran sergeant. In both movies, the lieutenants are killed and command devolves down. In both movies, very small detachments of US soldiers are holding off the communist Chinese hordes. In “Fixed Bayonets,” a platoon is left to hold a pass while the division retreats and is supposed to “sound like a division.”

The situation is pretty much a replay of Thermopylae in the snows of the Sierra Nevadas (that are supposed to be Korea). The movie begins with fulsome thanks for cooperation from the US Army, and the first line spoken is that “it takes more than brains to be a general in the United States Army, it takes guts.” This is not a view expressed with much frequency by those on the front lines, and I felt that I had been given notice that Fuller (a WWII infantryman) was producing propaganda.

Much of the rest of the movie involves a corporal who had been in Officer Training School and is unable to shoot enemy soldiers or give commands being turned into a killer and leader of men. There is one private, Jonesy (Pat Hogan), who saw Cpl. Denno (Richard Basehart) not fire at an oncoming Chinese soldier and who expresses contempt openly for Denno. Sgt. Rock (Gene Evans) is aware that Denno is terrified of taking command and prepares him as well as he can, recognizing that Denno has brains and guts along with crippling self-doubt.

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Some of the action scenes are quite good and Basehart was great at playing ambivalence. There is, however, much that is very predictable in the plot (can anyone with any familiarity with Hollywood ear movies doubt that Denno is eventually going to be in charge and rise to the challenge?). Even at the length of 92 minutes, the movie drags—particularly for a round of internal monologues from soldiers who have not been distinguished from each other before (except for the know-it-all “Whitey” played by Skip Homeier, grown up from “Tomorrow, the World!”). There is also a puddle of water that is presumably very cold in a cave that everyone stomps through, rather than skirting. The studio cave also has some very phony-looking stalactites.

There are no DVD extras on the Fox release, but the cinematography of Lucien Ballard (who later shot “The Wild Bunch” and other Peckinpah films) is preserved/transferred to disc. The great(er!) “Steel Helmet” has alsobecome available on DVD (Criterion Eclipse, so also without any bonus features).

Entirely BTW, it seems to me that the command is “Fix Bayonets!” so that I don’t understand the exclamation in the descriptive title “Fixed Bayonets.” (Bayonets are attached to rifles at least twice, but only one of them is used.)

And James Dean is supposed to have had a bit part, but, if so, I missed it, and suspect that it was cut. (The soldier who says “Who goes there?” near the end cannot be Dean, nor can either of the other two men on guard with him by the river.)

 

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

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Sam Fuller’s “Steel Helmet”

The 1959 movie, starring Gregory Peck, directed by Lewis Milestone, about taking and holding a tactically meaningless position, “Pork Chop Hill,” is probably the best American movie set within the Korean War (for discussion of others and of the great Korean movie set in the war see here), Sam Fuller’s (1951) “The Steel Helmet,” however, is my favorite, one from which Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg drew in “Raging Bull” and “Saving Private Ryan, respectively. (Spielberg also cast Fuller in “1941,” as did Wim Wenders in “The American Friend.”)

“The Steel Helmet” is available on DVD in the barebones (no extras) Criterion Eclipse series, along with Fuller’s baroque tale of forging land records, “The Baron of Arizona” and “I Shot Jesse James” with John Ireland (Red River) playing Robert Ford.

Racism was a recurrent subject for Fuller (most memorably the black “nlgger”-hater in Fuller’s surrealistic 1963 “Shock Corridor). Many Hollywood films set within the Korean War showed black men in the newly integrated US Army proving themselves, none more often than Sidney Poitier. The platoon in “The Steel Helmet” has considerable racial diversity even without the Korean orphan boy who adheres to the very gruff WWII survivor, Sgt. Zach (Gene Evans).

The helmet that is the backdrop for the opening credits turns out to be on the head of the sergeant, who has been tied up. The Korean boy, whom he will dub “Short Round”* (William Chun) approaches with a knife and cuts the bonds. Sgt. Zach doesn’t call him a “gook,” but provides the dubious compliment of saying that the boy “looks more like a dog face than a gook.” Throughout the movie, he resists the attempts of the boy to befriend him or turn him into a surrogate father. The viewer suspects that Sgt. Zach cares more than he admits, and eventually proves it… in a way that was so shocking to American audiences of the time that it led to an FBI investigation of Fuller (a very blunt-speaking WWII veteran, like Sgt. Zach). Back in those days, it was unthinkable that Americans might contravene the Geneva Conventions (let alone contend that there was no need to be bound by them, as the current president’s legal hacks like John Woo did).

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A North Korean major (Harold Fong) who has become a prisoner of the platoon goads Zach, along with attempting to establish a solidarity with Sgt. Tanaka (Richard Loo — who is called “Buddhahead” by Sgt. Zach) on the basis of race and the racism both know to be prevalent in the US, not least in the incarceration of Japanese Americans during the Second World War.

Not that American racism is ancient history within the movie or confined to the US homeland! Like the black medic, Corporal Thompson (James Edwards), Sgt. Tanaka is far more competent than the white soldiers — and the officer too stupid to listen to the voice of experience, when it comes from anyone nonwhite. Despite their ongoing frustrations, neither Tanaka or Thompson takes the bait and pull together against the assaults from without (a low-budget attack) and the Red Devil (communist) trying to mess with their loyalty to their country inside the Buddhist temple that shelters them — and is rather filled by a large Buddha that looms over the proceedings).

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 (race not being the only basis of differentiation; for instance, there is Pvt. Baldy, who would return along with Evans in Fuller’s bigger-budget but more generic “Fixed Bayonets”).

Rational analysis would question the survival of the small band of Americans through a massive assault and the devotion of “Short Round” to Sgt. Zach can easily be interpreted as racial masochism in ways in which the story participates in rather than clearly critiquing (as would be the case for that in Fuller’s later “Shock Corridor.” I was able to suspend disbelief with ease (much greater ease than for Fuller’s would-be Summa, “The Big Red One”), fascinated by the dynamics both among the Americans and between them and their high-ranking captive.

A remarkable thing about “The Steel Helmet” is that it was made in 1951, while the war was raging, but that is far from being its prime or only interest.

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* None of the Americans is interested enough to ask the boy’s name. “Short Round” is insulting in that it refers to a bullet that does not make it to its (lethal) destination. It has some irony in that the boy was not short by American (let alone Korean) standards.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

Also see my review of Fuller’s other 1951 Korean War movie, Fixed Bayonets.

The US role in carrying the Kuomintang to Taiwan and helping it to manufacture the image of a Leninist dictatorship there as “Free China”

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Harvard University Press seems to have joined with the acutely anti-communist Hoover Institution (which is located in the middle of the Stanford University campus) to exculpate the Kuomintang government and army that was swept from mainland China after stockpiling weapons intended to fight against the Japanese invaders for use against the communists, whom Chiang Kai-Shek’s army had pressed north following his first white terror (in Shanghai in 1927). The story of Chiang’s evasion of US pressure (in the personal of military liaison Gen. Joe Stillwell) to fight Japan was brilliantly told by Barbara Tuchman in her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1971 Stillwell and the American Experience of China, 1911-45.

Hoover Institution Chiang apologists Tse-Han Lai, Wou Wei, and Ramon Myers published an extraordinarily tendentious account of the KMT/ROC army and secret police descending on Taiwan with lists of community leaders in hands and guns blazing even as they disembarked in Keelung Harbor in A Tragic Beginning: The Taiwan Uprising of February 28, 1947, published by Stanford University Press in 1991.* Lai et al. attempted to exculpate Chiang and Chen Yi, Chief Executive and Garrison Commander of Taiwan Province, from responsibility for the slaughter, massively to underestimate the number of Taiwanese murdered by the regime the US had foisted on them (Japan has simply walked away from its colony of half a century, and the US Navy ferried ROC soldiers to Taiwan; the US conducted a plebiscite in which the people of Okinawa chose their government (Japan), but there has never been such a consultation of the people governed on Taiwan), and pretends that the systematic slaughter was a tragedy rather than a planned culling of intellectuals (etc.) who might oppose the massive KMT looting of infrastructure the Japanese had built up on Taiwan and the blatant corruption on Taiwan presided over by Chen Yi.

In 2011, Harvard’s Bellknap Press published a massive apologia for Chiang Kai-Shek written by Jay Taylor (1931-), Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China.

In 2016 Harvard University Press published Accidental State: Chiang Kai-Shek, the United States, and the Making of Taiwan, by Hoover Institution curator Hsia-Ting Lin, another extended apologia for Chiang Kai-Shek’s military incompetence in losing the civil war on the Chinese mainland (and then Hainan) as he warded off competitors for US aid —which had stopped flowing before North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950. While being careful to avoid any military action to retake China, Chiang and his American advocates (“the China Lobby,” many of whom had been Christian missionaries in China; Chiang had nominally converted) presented their refuge as “Free China.” The dictatorship, ruling under martial law for nearly forty years, pretended to be a government of all of China, so that the few people it actually governed (on Taiwan) were allotted only a small share of the representatives of the “Chinese people” (Lin does not seem to have noticed that the ROC pretense considered there to be three provinces on Taiwan rather than one). Lin does not demur from the Potemkin legislature or its election, writing,

“To legitimize the Republic of China as the central government of all China, the Taipei-based Nationalist government needed elected representatives for all China. In 1947 more than one thousand mainlanders in Nanking were elected by the Chinese people [sic.] as members of the National Assembly, Legislative Yuan, and Control Yuan. After coming to Taiwan, these representative were permitted to hold their seats until the next election could be held on the mainland [i.e., never; as Lin documents, Chiang Kai-Shek had no serious plans or any serious intent to retake the mainland], thus legitimizing [!] the Republic of China’s control of the island.”

Although the ROC only ruled Taiwan and a few other islands, the claim to be the rightful government of China (a fantasy the US maintained until 1979) ensured it not being responsible to the people it governed. The consent of the governed seems as irrelevant to Chiang’s apologist(s) as it was to him. And only slightly more important to most American government officials making East Asia/West Pacific policy, though some of them did not think the ROC had sound claims to rule Taiwan (let alone China!). Far from being an “accidental state,” the ROC was a conscious confection that denied those governed by the ROC (under martial law) from self-government.

Lin repeatedly props up Chiang’s actions and reactions as “understandable” (in its adverb form). Taiwanese seeking to be governed by the US under a UN mandate preparing for independence rather than de facto Chinese colonialism (following half a century of Japanese colonialism, which was harsh but followed its laws and built up infrastructure, including an educated workforce). He chronicles dissensus both within the KMT and within its paymaster, most frequently between the US State Department and the military, particularly General Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers in Japan until relieved of his command in April of 1951 in attempting to lead a war against the People’s Republic of China, that is a Third World War.

Chiang wanted a Third World War, which he hoped would include defeat of the PRC Red Army that had quickly and thoroughly defeated the ROC Army, but also did not want his troops to fight, either to retake Hainan or to open a second front for the PRC on the Asian mainland. As he had throughout the time of US engagement in fighting the Japanese, Chiang made sounds about fighting the communists. He declined actually to do either, instead concentrating on KMT infighting and suppressing dissidents in his satrapy pretending to be China. (Lin does quote Douglas MacArthur before the Korean War as judging that Chiang knew nothing of the art of war, the arts of palace intrigue and public doubletalk on the other hand, Chiang was even more accomplished than MacArthur.)

Lin barely mentions the long-running White Terror (aimed more at potential critics of Chiang than at communist sympathizers), putting that in scare quotes the only time he mentions it. That, the downplaying of Taiwanese killed by ROC occupiers, and classifying the mass murder as a “tragedy” rather than the result of conscious policy places Lin very much in the Lai and Taylor tradition of Chiang/KMT apologists. He exceeds them in blaming the observer George Kerr (Formosa Betrayed) for negligence “in the events surrounding the February 28 incident of 1947,” making me wonder which Taiwanese Kerr was responsible for slaughtering.

And Lin does not consider the extent to which the land reform (1) was aimed at breaking any power of Taiwanese elite, (2) targeted some small-holders, and (3) was not universally popular in Taiwan.

On a far less consequential level, I am sure that Lin make more mistakes in identification than two US legislators I noticed: the fervid ROC-backer (the prototypical former Christian missionary in China) Walter Judd was a US representative (from Minneapolis), not a US Senator, and the word order in the name Washington State US Representative and then US Senator is obviously “Warren Magnuson,” not “Magnuson Warren.”

Overly credulous of Chiang Kai-Shek’s diary and preoccupied by political maneuvering in both (ROC and US) governments to pay any attention to the views of the people living on Taiwan, Lin has done considerable archival research and manages to illuminate the fault line and conflicts within both governments (with the UK foreign office frequently very suspcious of Chiang and determined to avert a war across the Taiwan straits.)

*Keelung Hong and I criticized the KMT apologia at length in a review reprinted in our book Looking Through Taiwan, published by the University of Nebraska Press. Also see “Some American Witnesses of the KMT’s 1947 Reign of Terror on Taiwan, and the recent novels Green Island and 228 Legacy.

(There is also some material on maneuvering by Japan not to cede the colony it acquired China’s claims to (China had never pacified the interior of the island) to any state or international entity. Japan just renounced its claim to sovereignty of Taiwan in the 28 April 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty.)

 

The book’s cover photo shows Chiang Kai-Shek shaking hands with US General William Chase, chief of the US Military Assistance Advisory  Group  in Taipei.

 

©2016, Stephen O.Murray

A Harrowing Korean-American novel of survivor guilt and other kinds of guilt: Chang-Rae Lee’s The Surrendered

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The Surrendered, the fourth novel by Korean-American writer Chang-Rae Lee (1965-) is at once a big book (480 pages) encompassing three generations of characters on the same number of continents, and sketchy. There are enthralling, often horrifying set pieces, but the middle of the story of the two main characters who survive the frozen hell of the Korean war is barely sketched.

The novel opens with a harrowing account of an eleven-year-old Korean girl, June Han, trying to protect her younger brother and sister in a desperate flight south from the communists. Her teacher father was rounded up as a traitor and her older brother was drafted and either killed or captured. Her older sister is taken away for sexual servitude, but blown up with her mother on the road. Which leaves June clinging to the top of a boxcar on a south-moving train.

The horrors are by no means over for her, and she is nearly dead from starvation when an America GI from upstate New York (Ilion), persuades her to follow him to an orphanage. Hector Brennan has had traumatic experiences I the war himself, including an enemy soldier who is tortured by another member of Hector’s squad and ends up begging to be put out of his misery. After that Hector worked with black GIs on tending to corpses. Better stinking remains than seeing or inflicting more killings, Hector decided. And he was already suffering survivor guilt and sexual guilt from the death of his alcoholic father before the war.

At the orphanage to which he led June, he becomes an indispensable handyman, and also the lover of Sylvie, the opium-addicted wife of a Presbyterian missionary who runs the orphanage and is frequently away setting up other ones. The children love Sylvie, June most of all and forges a special relationship with her.

Sylvie Tanner was the child of missionaries in Manchuria at the time the Japanese annexed it. Although that is not where she became addicted to opium, she witnessed the rape of her mother, the torture of her young Chinese mentor, Benjamin Li, and more before escaping (how she did is another lacuna in the novel).

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There are more disasters and bases for survivor guilt for both June and Hector at the orphanage. 30years on, June has closed her successful Manhattan antique business, sold her co-op apartment (or vacated it if she was renting it) and hired a private detective to find Hector and to find the son she had by him (seemingly not with him, though it seems she got to the USA as his wife) who went off to Europe after graduating from high school and never came back. Nicholas seems to have used what he learned about antiques form his mother’s business, working and stealing from a succession of European antique shops.

It may seem like I have told a lot of the plot, but I have only laid out the beginnings of the layers of stories of suffering and anguish of June, Hector, and Sylvie and of the very complicated relationships at the Korean orphanage, the most extended — though interrupted — story in the center of the web of anguished failures to save others in the novel.

As if there weren’t enough horror from the wreckage of Korea in the 1950s, Lee includes three accidental deaths and two by cancer and a charred copy of J. H. Dun ant’s 1862 A Memory of Soldering, the site of an 1859 battle that was fought in what is now northern Italy (between Verona and Milan) and was the last major battle in world history where all the involved armies were under the personal command of their monarchs (Napoleon III and Victor Emmanuel II against the Hapsburg Franz Joseph I) involving more than 200, 000 men and 37,000 casualties, and leading to the founding in 1863 of both the International Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions on warfare. The Red Cross link is why Sylvie’s mother gave it to her. (Both Sylvie and Hector witness Violations of the Geneva Convention.) I don’t think that Lee needed to pile on casualties from the Second Italian War of Independence, though the chain of ownership of the book spans four generations.

The opening is so painful to read about that I put it down twice. After surviving that, I devoured the remaining 450+ pages in two days. That qualifies it as a “page-turner.” There were surprises and there are still some things I find mysterious, including how A Memory of Solferino survived its second conflagration. Light reading, The Surrendered definitely is not, but compelling reading, it is.

©2010, 2016 Stephen O. Murray