Tuesday, May 15, 2012

#39 - PORK CHOP HILL



BACK-STORY: “Pork Chop Hill” is arguably the most famous and best movie about the Korean War. It was directed by Lewis Milestone of “All Quiet…” fame.  PCH was his last war movie. It was released in 1959. The screenplay is based on the nonfiction book by the famous war author S.L.A. Marshall (SLAM). Gregory Peck’s character (Joe Clemons) acted as technical adviser on the film. Clemons was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for the battle. The movie is populated by many familiar actors from the 1960s and includes a small role by Barry McGuire of future “Eve of Destruction” one hit wonder fame.


OPENING: GIs are listening to a Chinese propaganda broadcast coming over a loudspeaker system. They are living in trenches similar to WWI. The Chinese broadcaster promises if they give up, the Chicoms will quit, too. Screenwords tell us we are at a reserve position near Pork Chop Hill which is seventy miles from the peace talks being held at Panmunjom. The year is 1953.

SUMMARY: In the battalion command bunker, Lt. Clemons (Peck) gets orders to prepare his King Company for an assault on Pork Chop Hill. It has recently been lost to a Communist attack and the powers that be want it retaken. It will be his first command.

King Company wondering why it's always King Company
        Clemons’ men are understandably fixated on the peace talks. They are all anticipating the imminent armistice. One of Clemons’ men, Pvt. Forstman (Harry Guardino), is insistent that he has enough points to be rotated out of combat. No such luck, pal. Dead meat alert! Now they get this lousy assignment. Why is it always them to get the crap details?

Ohashi and Clemons
        The plan is to make a two platoon frontal assault up the hill in the dark with the third platoon held in reserve. Standard tactics. Clemons is assured that the preliminary artillery barrage will destroy all the concertina wire barriers. He’s also told he will be supported on his right flank by Love Company. Piece of cake! It may be easy as pie, but is it worth it? Clemons tells his skeptical executive officer Ohashi (George Shibata) that Pork Chop Hill is “a chip in the game at the peace talks. We have to convince [the Commies] we’re not going to give up any more chips.” That’s a pretty accurate analysis of the politics of it. In another piece of refreshing truth, Clemons comments that the Chicoms are good soldiers, especially at night. (That line would not have been used in “The Steel Helmet” which was made during the war.) The enemy is not demonized in this movie.

enemy in the trenches
         The assault is classic American bullheadedness. In line with bayonets fixed. The deaths are random. The terrain is like no man’s land. The soldier chatter is terse. The Chinese Tokyo Rose taunts King Company by name, welcomes them to “the meat grinder", and plays taps. The men begin to wonder how tasty that piece of cake is going to be. A black soldier named Franklin (Woody Strode) “twists his ankle”. Clemons is not buying that and forces the sullen soldier to proceed. When they reach the wire, surprise! It’s intact. To make matters worse, the Chinese open fire with bolt action rifles, burp guns, and potato masher grenades. Some of the men throw themselves on the barbed wire so their buddies can run over them. Could things get worse? American spotlights suddenly illuminate them from the rear. A desperate radio call gets them doused. Not only that but where the hell is Love Company?

Robert Blake as Pvt. Velie


         There is an awkward transition to daylight. Weirdly, they are now further from the Communist trenches than they were in the previous scene. The Chinese now give way too easily. The Chicoms launch a flank attack that fizzles for no apparent reason. King Company occupies the trenches tenuously having lost a large percentage of its men. They have a joyful reunion with the survivors of Easy Company who had taken refuge in a bunker. The reunion is cut short when an artillery round smashes into them. C’est la guerre.

Catch, Yankee dogs!
         Love Company finally arrives – all twelve (oops, artillery round – make that ten) of them. Clemons calls in his reserve platoon which uses a well staged bayonet charge to take the crest. Things calm down enough for some exposition from the stoically cynical Clemons. His discussions with his subordinates are realistically fatalistic. His radio calls to the rear demanding support are appropriately frustrating as the brass are clueless to the actual situation. This is hammered in by the arrival of a publicity officer sent to get the story of the glorious victory.  He brings a "Mission Accomplished" banner to put up.  Just kidding.

        Things seem to be looking up when Clemons’ brother-in-law Lt. Russell (Rip Torn) arrives with George Company. The back-slapping ends abruptly with word that the rear has ordered George to withdraw because they don’t want to lose any more men on the hill! Clemons is left with only 25 men to defend the whole hill. One of those men is Franklin who is still a reluctant warrior and in a confrontation with Clemons threatens to shoot him. Clemons tries to shame the coward into fighting alongside his comrades. Gregory Peck + 1950s movie + black guy can’t remain a coward + redemption theme = Franklin mends his ways.

        Meanwhile, back at Panmunjom, the inscrutable Chinese are obviously testing our strength with this fight over a worthless knoll. They are willing to expend lives over nothing. Are we? Clemons finds out the answer is yes when his requests for withdrawal or reinforcements are turned down. The Chinese broadcaster tells them the attack is coming in 45 minutes. Tick tock.


last stand
CLOSING: The fort is about to be swarmed by Indians. I mean the trench line is about to be assaulted by a Chinese horde. The Americans pull back to the keep, I mean the bunker. They bunker in, but the Chinese have a flamethrower. Unfair! This would be a good time for the cavalry to arrive. Sure enough (although they’re not on horses) reinforcements arrive and save our band of brothers (one of whom is alive meat Forstman). We win! We win! We get to possess the worthless hill!  (Hamburger Hill veterans can empathize with them.) “Millions live in freedom today because of what they did.” Seriously? Way to pull your punches, Milestone.

RATINGS:


Acting - 8


Action - 8


Accuracy - 9


Plot - 8


Realism - 8


Overall - 9

WILL CHICKS DIG IT? No. It is totally a guy movie. In fact there is only one woman in the entire film. A Chinese woman brings a note to the propaganda dude.  She's wearing a negligee.  Not really.

HISTORICAL ACCURACY: The movie could have used more background, complete with maps. The action portrayed in the movie took place after the fall of a more strategic hill called Old Baldy. That loss left Pork Chop Hill sticking out like a sore thumb in front of the main line of resistance and dominated by higher hills. This information would have been cogent to the plot because attempting to hold PCH was strategically and tactically unsound. The defense was purely to make up for the loss of Old Baldy and avoid another propaganda debacle. This makes the final post script ridiculous.

         The pre-battle situation and plan are accurately depicted. The attack itself is pretty close to the real deal which is to be expected given Clemons’ involvement as the technical advisor. They did cross the barbed wire on soldiers’ bodies. However, they were not under fire until they reached the trenches unlike in the movie. The discovery of survivors in a bunker and the subsequent short round did happen. The arrival of Love with only a dozen men and the later arrival of George led by Clemons’ brother-in-law are authentic. The withdrawal of George is correctly represented as brainless, but the movie does not make it clear that part of the fault was Clemons not mentioning the shortage of men when he begged for resupply.

        There were many more grenades thrown by both sides than shown in the movie and the artillery was also short-changed. This battle involved more artillery fire by our side than almost any American battle in history. It was almost continuous through the two days. Speaking of weapons, the movie is outstanding in that respect. Even the Chinese are using appropriate weapons. The movie does a poor job of portraying the incredible exhaustion of the men. In fact, this plus the lack of water meant that before the final enemy assault the Americans did not talk due to parched throats. Hollywood could not abide with that!

Hollywood loves fire
         The final scene is problematical. There was no dramatic rescue of King. The surviving seven were withdrawn before it happened. It was mainly Fox Company members that were laid siege to in the bunker. I found no evidence that a flame thrower was trying to cook them. You can’t fault Hollywood too much for this one. Simplification for dramatic effect.

         Overall, you are not going to get a more accurate view of the trench type warfare that dominated the last year of the Korean War.  Specifically, it is as accurate a depiction of one of the most famous battles of the Korean War as you could ask for.

CRITIQUE: “Pork Chop Hill” has been described as the best Korean War B-Movie. That’s not as impressive as it sounds considering the quality of those other Korean War B-Movies. (BTW why are almost all the Korean War movies low budget?) With that said, it is very good for what it is. The acting is solid. Not surprising considering the cast. Peck is Peck. Did he ever make a bad movie? Harry Guardino, Rip Torn, George Peppard, Robert Blake, the great Woody Strode. ‘Nuf said. The cinematography is a crisp black and white. The scenes are shot close. You seldom see more than a few men in the shot. The sound effects are realistic. The sound track is sparse and is not used to set moods. In spots, it reminded me of music from the series “Combat!” The sets are well done for a low budget effort. The dialogue is refreshingly cynical in its commentary on war.

Fedderson and Forstman
        The movie is clearly anti-war, but dilutes its message with the optimistic coda. It is gritty and authentic in its depiction of the randomness of death in combat. Forstman and Fedderson (George Peppard) are doing a fine impression of Rivera and Friedman (also machine gunners) from Milestone’s "A Walk in the Sun" before Friedman is blown up. The deaths are bloodless, but not old school. Noone signals touchdown as they twirl around and fall. It is not propagandistic or overly patriotic. In fact, the Chinese propaganda broadcaster is not a hissable villain nor is he comical.

         PCH is one of the best company level movies ever made. It is not a small unit dynamics movie ala “Platoon”. There is little dysfunctionality other than with Franklin (who is a fictional character). One fault of the movie is because it concentrates on such a small picture that some of the actions defy reality. Why do the Chinese who vastly outnumber the Americans give up so easily at times? It is hard to justify the American success given what we see on the screen.

           The biggest strength of the film is its historical accuracy. It is one of the best movies covering a battle. Considering the war is known as the “Forgotten War”, it is nice that a typical battle gets the featured treatment. It reminds one of “Hamburger Hill” in its battles-can-be-futile theme. It also has a similar take on how command decisions based on political factors can result in unnecessary squandering of lives.

CONCLUSION: “Pork Chop Hill” is underrated at #39. It is one of the most realistic battle films and one of the best small unit movies. Considering when it was made and the budget, it is clearly a classic. It holds up very well and if it had been made with the modern sensibilities that allowed for the realistic violence and language in "Hamburger Hill", it would be superior to that movie. It also deserves credit for representing the “Forgotten War” well.

the trailer

Chinese propaganda dude


6 comments:

  1. I know I was astonished about the fact that it is called a B-movie. I've seen worse that wasn't called a B-movie but I have forgotten almost everything. I watched and reviewed and forgot it. It doesn't say a lot about the movie, just that I might have watched if just after something more memorable.
    I wonder if there will ever be a big budget movie in the future on this war.

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  2. That seems unlikely although the South Koreans have made some big budget films like Tae Guk Ri. A great movie could be made about the Chosin Reservoir.

    I wanted to mention in my post a really cool thing in the movie. SLA Marshall is famous for his conclusion that most American soldiers do not fire their weapons in combat. At one point in the movie Clemons referencing this by telling one of the sergeants "half the men are not firing, make them use their weapons." It is nice being one of the very few that got that line.

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  3. Did Gregory Peck ever make a bad movie you ask. Yes, try "Beloved Infidel"

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  4. I remember asking that same question after seeing "The Omen" years ago. And then he made "MacArthur" LOL.

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  5. The Steel Helmet was directed by Samuel Fuller. That millions of South Koreans live in freedom today due to United Nations action to halt Communist aggression is a fact.

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  6. Thanks. I don't know how I made that mistake. That is embarrassing. I made the correction. I agree with your assessment of the importance of the Korean War.

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Please fell free to comment. I would love to hear what you think and will respond.