Saturday, November 13, 2010

Lewis Milestone: Pork Chop Hill

Lewis Milestone, the man who directed the first and best version of All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), gives a no-nonsense look at a late Korean War battle over a token (useless) hill. For the most part, Pork Chop Hill (1959) tells the story in straightforward fashion and holds up very well -- except for the overdub ending, a telling artifact of the Cold War that's a nifty example of propaganda, and innaccurate at that, probably tacked on at Hollywood's insistence so as not to draw the ire of John Birchers. The bulk of the movie, though, is as about as accurate as anyone can expect, and is not far different in grittiness from Stanley Kubrick's classic World War I film, Paths of Glory (1957).

As for the battlefield, it's not much different from a World War I tableau: trenches, bunkers, concertina wire, artillery and infantry, flairs and machine guns. 

The mission to retake and hold Pork Chop from Chines forces, like almost anything in war, goes awry from the get-go. Examples of what Carl von Clausewitz called friction abound: men drop their weapons, go into shock, shirk, perform reckless feats, obey orders, disobey orders, launch a bayonet attack, all while the rear headquarters commanders have misconceptions about what's going on at the front; there's also at least one "friendly fire" incident -- and so on: much of this spelled out in  S.L.A. Marshall's study, Pork Chop Hill: The American Fighting Man in Action, Korea, Spring, 1953 (1956).

The amount of time spent developing characters is minimal, but there are a slew of actors in early roles. African American actors are fairly downplayed as far as dialogue, but significantly are included playing soldiers in the recently-desegregated U.S. Army. Besides the magisterial Gregory Peck, you get at least a glimpse of Clarence Williams III, Harry Dean Stanton, Martin Landau, Rip Torn, Woody Strode, Normal Fell, George Peppard, Harry Guardino, Robert Blake, James Edwards and George Shibata (in real life, the first Japanese American to graduate from the US Military Academy at West Point -- pictured above with Gregory Peck).

Given the political contraints of the Cold War, Pork Chop Hill is a damned good war movie -- better than, say, the comparable Vietnam-American War flick, We Were Soldiers (2002).  

Today's Rune: Strength. P.S. I remember seeing this as a kid and loving it -- my opinion remains essentially unchanged.


ivan said...

Oh those open-air abbatoirs the generals used to call set-pieces.

Charles Gramlich said...

I saw the movie back many years ago and liked it. Don't remember much more about it though.

jodi said...

Erik, maybe it's a guy thing, but I hate war movies. Too scary and depressing and usually realistic. Except for the war in 'Gone With the Wind' which was, at least, civil. Tee Hee!

Michael Hess said...

Hey Erik, thanks for checking in on me. Glad you like the new Littourati site.

I'm really going to have to see this movie.