I have written before about the inadequacy of nearly every American film in the war genre. This is bizarre, in one respect, because the subject of war has inspired many of the world’s most trenchant films. Hollywood’s ineptitude at making war films, however, makes perfect sense when one considers the reluctance of the U.S. to share most of the rest of the world’s profound distaste for war. We Americans tend to be (at best) ambivalent about war, and such ambivalence can compromise truthfulness and artistic integrity. This ambivalence is at least partly rooted in our national conviction that war provides a necessary arena for boys to achieve or realize their “manhood.” One of the ugliest upshots of this delusion is that our most gripping, most powerful antiwar novel, Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, is often conveniently misread (and, in countless middle and high schools, taught) as a “coming-of-age” book, thus making the book seem to advocate everything it mocks and opposes. The pro-war uses to which Crane’s antiwar classic has been put expose America’s infatuation with war and America’s discomfort with alternative views about war, especially at home.
Pork Chop Hill, which is based on Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall’s nonfiction book subtitled The American Fighting Man in Action, Korea, Spring, 1953, is a Korean War film made five or so years after the fact. Hopelessly and a bit dementedly divided between being pro-war and antiwar, it’s a silly film, at times a ludicrous film, but one that’s interesting for its ideological and consumerist pathologies. It’s grossly manipulative and preachy, but it pitches its messages in diverse and contradictory directions, revealing the unsettled nature of its convictions. In general, its analysis runs one way, its feelings in another, and the ambivalence it comprises determines its otherwise incomprehensible visual aspect. Like the same director’s earlier Halls of Montezuma (1950), the film prettifies war, giving it the most attractive surface possible, while punctuating this presentation with occasional grim inserts suggesting war’s horror. The film is morally and intellectually incoherent.
The Korean “conflict” was rhetorically defined by the U.S. government as a “police action” in order to make it more palatable to a war-weary nation. Korea’s partitioning had occurred in 1948. On June 25, 1950, North Korea crossed the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea; it did this, it insisted, in response to an invasion of their territory by South Korea. The United Nations sided with the South, demanding the withdrawal of North Korean troops. North Korea captured Seoul, the capital of South Korea (and, before the partitioning, of Korea), on June 28. Three days later, U.S. ground troops entered the fray, losing the first battle to the North Koreans on July 5. Two days later, General Douglas MacArthur was appointed by the U.N. to command and coordinate the effort against North Korea, leaving little doubt that the U.N. was primarily functioning as an extension of U.S. foreign policy. North Korea continued its victories, and by early August the Soviet Union, pronouncing the North-South conflict a civil war, demanded the withdrawal of all foreign troops. Less than a week later, the U.S., also through a U.N. representative, stated its aim as the unification of Korea, implicitly at the expense of the communist North. Thus did the U.S. cast the conflict between Koreas as an extension of the Cold War it was waging against the Soviet Union. British troops joined the fray by the end of August. On September 28, U.N. forces recaptured Seoul, but the victory came at a price: the People’s Republic of China entered the fray, declaring it would not tolerate seeing “their neighbors being savagely invaded.” In early October, South Korean, then U.S., and then U.N. forces crossed the 38th parallel, provoking China’s entrance into the field by the end of the month. By the end of the year Chinese troops had crossed the 38th parallel and joined North Koreans to launch a massive offensive. The war seesawed; for instance, the Chinese and North Koreans recaptured Seoul in January, and U.N. forces recaptured it two months later. By the time cease-fire talks began in July (violations of preliminary conditions saw either side walking out of the talks in a seesawing parody of the war itself), the U.S. president, Harry Truman, had replaced MacArthur with General Matthew Ridgway. The “Little Armistice” finally arranged near the end of November dissolved altogether a month later as truce talks alternated between resumption and breakdown, the proposal by the U.N. for an exchange of prisoners-of-war a particularly contentious issue. In June 1952 U.N. forces began bombing targets in North Korea. In November, partly due to the American appetite for some decisive resolution of the war, Dwight Eisenhower was elected U.S. president. (Eisenhower, a Republican, defeated Democrat Adlai Stevenson, Truman having declined to run for a second term: political events that would find an eerie echo in others, during another, similar war, sixteen years hence.) On July 13, 1953, the Chinese and North Koreans launched another major offensive. The protracted, shaky negotiations finally yielded a cease-fire agreement exactly two weeks later, bringing the war to an official conclusion. The exchange of prisoners began about a week later.* Korea hadn’t been unified after all, but at least the war was over. In all, about three million civilians were killed by U.S. forces in Korea.
Pork Chop Hill takes place in the last days of the war, at a time when the energy and commitment of the soldiers must compete with their exhausted anticipation of the truce about to be reached. In the main, the film studies the psychological effects of this quandary the U.S. combatants are in. Or, at least, this is what the film addresses at its best. Soldiers themselves discuss the imminent truce—an imminence that helps explain the military hesitancy and even rebelliousness into which some of the combatants fall, requiring a mammoth effort on the part of the main character, Lieutenant Joe Clemons, to pull together the men under his command for the sake of their desperate, really, suicidal final mission. The Americans had taken Pork Chop Hill, but the Chinese have taken it back. To quote the production notes included with the DVD of the film: “Clemon’s 135-man K Company (Seventh Infantry) was ordered to retake Pork Chop Hill from the Chinese Communist forces, not because the hill had any intrinsic value, but because its possession could provide crucial leverage at the ongoing peace talks.” The men, most of whom will lose their lives in the effort, are thus political pawns—a captivating metaphor for the whole procedure of war. James R. Webb’s script is on the money, then. (Webb would win an Oscar for How the West Was Won, the shrewdly critical nature of whose script, regrettably, only one of the film’s three directors, John Ford, grasped and conveyed.) But Lewis Milestone’s direction of Pork Chop Hill consigns the astute intentions of Webb’s script to the groundlessness of cross-purposes.
For some reason, one that may have originated in the script but more likely came afterwards by the calculation of the producers (including the star, Gregory Peck), North Koreans are nowhere mentioned in the film. Nor for that matter, except possibly in passing, are the South Koreans. For all intents and purposes, those making Pork Chop Hill portray the conflict as one being waged between Americans and Chinese communists, who are occasionally derisively shorthanded as “Reds.” How can this be? Given the time of the film’s production and release (1958-9), this makes perfect sense. In five years, partly because they sensed America’s unbroadcasted failure in the war, Americans had swept the experience under the rug; the Korean conflict had already become the forgotten American war. It therefore would do nothing for the film’s financial prospects to attempt to revive these memories. (Alas, U.S. amnesia about Korea contributed to the next U.S. war, where Americans felt they might erase their vague sense of defeat by succeeding in Indo-China where their predecessors, the French, had failed.) But the Cold War between the U.S. and the “Reds,” that is, Soviet communists, persisted; it is really to this conflict that Pork Chop Hill constantly refers, with the Chinese filling in for their communist brethren, the Soviets. (In reality, owing to historic conflicts between China and Russia, China and the Soviet Union were only on their best days allies—and then, volatile allies.)
Thus the film proceeds by muddle—the muddle of two diverse and inherently opposed agendas. On the one hand, the makers want to say something about how ground warriors in modern times are manipulated, their lives endangered and sacrificed, by distant politicians seeking board table resolution of conflicts to the greater advantage of “their side.” These filmmakers wish to show war as horrifically out of the hands of those who fight it and die in it. This aim, of course, predicts a pessimistic, even a tragic outcome and outlook. On the other hand, the makers also want something else entirely; they want to curry the favor of 1959 audiences by invoking the Cold War, a “war” to which these audiences can directly relate—in order to be most attractive, a procedure that needs to predict an optimistic, even a celebratory outcome and outlook. Since the substitution of the Cold War for the Korean War was deemed by the makers incapable of being acknowledged, the film’s contradictory aims make their way into the film’s portrayal of the 1953 Korean War mission, resulting in an ambivalence of attitude towards that mission and its consequences. Rarely has a war film veered so pathologically between antiwar statement and gung-ho propaganda.
In light of this, one may say either of two things about Milestone, the film’s director: his own ambivalence about war cannot hope to clear up the muddle; or, he is the perfect man for the job. At the outset, for the sake of fairness, let’s state outright that Milestone may not have been conscious of any ambivalence about war on his part, once saying, in fact, “I’ve always tried to expose war for what it is and not glorify it.” But his own history had brought him to a different expressive place as an artist by the time of Pork Chop Hill. Milestone was born Lev Milstein in 1895 in what was then Kishinew, Russia. His family, Jewish, emigrated to the U.S. in 1913. From 1917-19, Private Milstein photographed training films for the Army Signal Corps. Upon his discharge, he became a U.S. citizen, changing his name to “Lewis Milestone.” Where does one go with a new identity and in search of a new, American life? Milestone went to Hollywood, becoming an editor and a producer before winning Oscars for directing the comedy Two Arabian Knights (1927) and, from Erich Maria Remarque’s antiwar novel, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), which also won the Oscar as best picture. His best films in the 1930s were as Leftist as All Quiet on the Western Front: the bohemian Al Jolson musical Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (1933), in which a white man and a black man are hobo companions, that is to say, social equals, and The General Died at Dawn (1936), an atmospheric Far East adventure—Sternberg-lite—scripted by Clifford Odets. Milestone finished the decade on a high note, with a film version of Of Mice and Men (1939) that was nominated for a best picture Oscar, even though the film scrupulously avoided communist author John Steinbeck’s impassioned plea for state care of the mentally challenged that would relieve loved ones of their principal care and burden, and it likewise avoided the critique of American capitalism, with its generation of insurmountable poverty, into which this plea is woven. Milestone was a Leftist, but not that much of a Leftist. Divided, and with keen feelings for his homeland, he allowed a different impression to arise by making during the Second World War, when we were allies, the pro-Soviet war film written by Lillian Hellman, The North Star (1943). As a result, after the war, in 1946, he found himself an unfriendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee. For Milestone, therefore, career-survival became paramount, and the patriotic fervor of The Halls of Montezuma (1950), a most unRemarqueable war film in the Pacific, paved the way. Doubtless, he was chosen to direct Pork Chop Hill to continue in the same direction, especially since producer-star Peck had already aligned himself with Cold War hysteria with the film Night People (Nunnally Johnson, 1954).
Milestone’s determination to be “upbeat” helps explain the comic relief with which Pork Chop Hill is inappropriately inundated, but far more damaging to the film’s credibility is its fluctuating attitude on the nature of war that its contradictory impulses impose, and these in turn are partly determined by Milestone’s own incompatible aims of portraying war realistically and rehabilitating his reputation for a reactionary public. The stilted nature of the delivery of so much of the dialogue by (then and since) largely unknown actors deepens the problem, although one must immediately add that this artificial kind of acting equally mars All Quiet on the Western Front and the selfconsciously “poetic” A Walk in the Sun (1945), another Milestone war film stressing the feelings and anxieties of ordinary soldiers. (On the other hand, excellent performances are briefly contributed to Pork Chop Hill by Martin Landau, Rip Torn, Robert Blake, George Peppard and others.) Most damaging of all is the film’s visual style. As he did in All Quiet on the Western Front, Milestone employs in key passages tracking shots of combat, and it must be frankly admitted that he has improved in this regard; these scenes are, again, electric, but Milestone has purged them of the sensational and thrilling aspects that muddled the message back in 1930. Unfortunately, Milestone hasn’t succeeded as well at keeping the film from becoming—I don’t know how else to put it—almost lovingly attractive. Some describe the film as “gritty”; the “grit” eludes me. Although the film is in black and white, and cinematographed by Sam Leavitt, whose sober Oscar-winning work the year before elevated at least the appearance of Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones, the visual impression most left by Pork Chop Hill is one of lovely artificial lighting and soft-focus vistas. Except for Halls of Montezuma, which is in color, a prettier combat film hasn’t been made.
Gregory Peck is at his pompous, slow-witted worst as Clemons, and the typical woodenness of his acting takes a considerable toll. He adds nothing positive to the film, and not for a moment can he be taken for anything but a stiff actor playing a part. There is no dimension of reality whatsoever to his portrayal.
Peck can claim another negative distinction, having starred in two of the most racist films ever to emerge from Hollywood. The second, for which he would win an Oscar for what Andrew Sarris has correctly described as his “unctuous nobility,” is Robert Mulligan’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), based on Harper Lee’s despicable novel, a “cleverly masked defense of gradualism” (Sarris again), the idea that federal intervention should not be applied to the South to ensure blacks their rights, for southerners will take care of any problems of inequity in due course on their own. The first racist film included in Peck’s résumé is Pork Chop Hill. Whatever Webb’s intentions, his script (unless it was radically altered during the shoot) introduces the offending element. This involves the only two African-American soldiers in K Company, as far as I can see. One, Franklen, is reluctant to fight and possibly die—it’s never noted that his opponents on the battlefield are also people of color—because of the hardship of his life back home. (Incredibly, Peck’s Clemons dismisses this argument on the grounds that everyone there had just as hard a life back home.) The other black soldier is Jurgens, who makes it his business to keep track of Franklen because, he explains to his fellow black, he has a “personal stake” in how Franklen behaves. Outrageously, Milestone films their moment of confrontation with Jurgens gripping Franklen’s wrist, the implication being that the two only suddenly realize that they are both blacks, as though this could possibly have escaped their (or our) notice. Not so outrageously, the script sentimentally resolves the conflict as Franklen decides he is an American patriot before he is a prejudged, socially excluded, politically, socioeconomically and even legally disadvantaged African American in the States. Why not? The history of African-American soldiering is the perpetually deferred white promise of social, political and legal equity back home as reward for their contribution and sacrifice—a spirit of black devotion, I might add, that makes the script’s contrivances here seem, at best, rhetorical and churlish. Setting one black character against the one other black character as mere set-up for their eventual unity of military purpose strikes me as odious in the extreme. Ironic: Probably intended to avoid the spectacle of a fellow white soldier chastising Franklen and taking him in tow, the film’s calculation on this point only worsens the sour taste left by a black chastising and taking in tow a fellow black, as though it’s the job of blacks to police their racial or ethnic community in order to ensure that Uncle Sam’s prerogatives take precedence over all other matters. What were the makers of the film thinking? Do they really believe that Franklen’s feelings and actions, hardly justly so cavalierly dismissed, are somehow Jurgens’s responsibility to shoulder and, if possible, “correct”? The mind spins at such reactionary “logic.”
One good thing, though, does arise from the absurdity of the Jurgens-Franklen conflict within the otherwise white company: a reminder of Truman’s desegregation of the American military. Let me quit this piece on this high historic note.
* I am indebted to Marcus Wendel’s Web summary of the Korean War.