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In 1950, life as usual in a middle-American town. Cold War paranoia is beginning; the young men's biggest concern is the draft board and deferments from the peacetime army. Then the Korean War begins, and the Greer family starts to worry: kid brother Jack, courting the lovely daughter of the draft board chairman, is next on the list. A character study examining American attitudes of that era. Written by
Rod Crawford <firstname.lastname@example.org>
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[Arriving home with her husband after sending the youngest of their three sons off to the Korean War, Sarah begins trashing the husband's WWI shrine.]
Liar! Crazy, crazy liar! You never were in any one of those places and you know it. You never heard a shot fired. You were in Paris all through the war, shining up a general's boots, bringing him bicarbonate of soda when he'd drunk too much the night before. I went along with you; I thought it was childish, foolish, but I didn't think it did any ...
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Probably this sincere family drama is too low-key and idealized to make a lasting impression. Nonetheless, it's one of the few attempts at portraying effects of the Korean War on average Americans through the impact on one family. The obvious comparison is with the WWII family drama The Best Years of our Lives, but the differences are illuminating. Unlike WWII, there is no moral clarity to this war. The screenplay inserts two rather vague justifications for American intervention; however, these remain abstract, without the concrete appeal of a Pearl Harbor. By and large, this is how the country reacted to the interventionas a matter of anti-communist duty, but without any enthusiasm. The movie, I think, conveys some of this ambivalence. However, the upbeat ending looks also like an effort to fold the unease into an idealized celebration of middle-class adjustment and normality.
And that was the problem of the war for many Americans. Note in the movie how the Greer's business is expanding. In fact, the entire civilian economy was expanding, creating millions of new jobs and new middle-class life styles after years of Depression and WWII sacrifice. The Korean War came as an unwelcome distraction to those fast rising prospects. So, when Eisenhower campaigned in 1952 on ending the war, the pledge was enthusiastically received. It's not hard to imagine both the Greers and the Turners turning out solidly for the ex- general on that basis.
Given the life and death circumstances, the movie amounts to an exercise in intense emotional restraint, as though the producers are avoiding anything that might alarm the audience. Note that the likable Junior (Milner) is listed in the less threatening category of missing-in-action rather than killed-in-action. Thus the human cost is not driven home as forcefully as it could have been. Note too how risks of civilian bombing casualties are underplayed by the neighbor woman Krupka in her flat account of surviving WWII bombing in Europe.
Also when war risks are brought up, they have not specifically to do with Korea. Instead the allusions are to Soviet stereotypes (though the Soviets are never mentioned by name) and to the dangers of atomic warfare. This again has the effect of removing the war from its concrete context of an Inchon landing, a Chosin retreat, or a Pusan perimeter. I suspect that the effect on today's viewers of turning the war into an abstraction is more pronounced than it was in 1951.
Actually, using atomic weapons in Korea, especially to fend off the Chinese "hordes", was a live issue at the time. After all, as hawks argued, what's the value of these super-weapons if we don't use them. Add to that the fact that the Soviets lacked a long-range delivery system to hit American shores (not mentioned in the movie) and the hawks have a fairly compelling case. The movie, however, turns the issue into a morally simpler matter of Jack's (Granger) being selfish against Nancy's (McGuire) legitimate concern for the unsparing destruction an atomic war would cause just to lessen Jack's chances of being killed in combat. Nonetheless, when Jack comes around to Nancy's view at movie's end, it's not clear whether he's merely rejecting his former selfishness or the whole idea of atomic warfare. Nor, for that matter, do we know Nancy's general position on the nuclear question. Thus the film muddies a key issue plaguing not only the Korean period, but the entire Cold War era.
One issue the screenplay deals with effectively is the draft. The dramatic highpoint comes when George Sr. (Junior's father, beautifully played by Walter Baldwin) confronts Martin (Andrews) as the man who sent Junior to his probable death by not writing an exemption letter to the draft board. In practical terms, Junior should not be exempted because he's not "indispensible" to the war effort at home. So, Martin is on solid ground in that regard. However, as a moral matter, is Junior any less valuable than any other draft-age young man. And therein lies the nub of the problem that has plagued the concept of Selective Service over the decades a clash between morality as securing the "greater good" and morality as treating people as equals. Martin has to operate on the basis of the former while George Sr. feels the injustice of the latter. It's the movie's best scene, and one that definitely benefits from a sense of intensely restrained emotion.
It looks like a carefully chosen ensemble cast. Milner is especially affecting as the ill-fated Junior. It's he who gives the movie real poignancy as he becomes a stand-in for every fine young man whose life is put at risk in a dubious war. The screenplay can't resist over-doing his youthful frustrations at times, but the point is there and it's his earnest-life-cut-short that's stuck with me over the years. On the other hand, Granger and Dow as the young lovers are about ten lip-smacks too sweet and take up too much screen time, especially with their poorly staged "strolls in the park". I get the feeling their roles were expanded to expand box-office appeal.
Nonetheless, the movie remains an interesting artifact of its time, but is ultimately too pallid and idealized to make a lasting impression. Beyond the fairness of the draft, the screenplay really doesn't confront the sticky political issues that defined the war itself. In short, the story lacks the sort of forceful confrontation that Fredric March has with Grace Kelly in The Bridges of Toko-Ri, the best movie I think on the war. There, the whole moral question of Korea is dealt with specifically, and it's to that movie's lasting credit that the defining sense of unease lasts throughout with no "happy" ending, just like the war itself. Anyway, this film is still worth a look-see for those interested in America past and in some ways America present.
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