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The Korean War always suffers badly in comparison to others such as World
War II. It was never terribly popular in the United States, even less so
here in Canada, I understand. Korea didn't have a Pearl Harbor to get
American backs up and creative juices flowing. Western countries had been
busy demilitarizing when North Korea made the decision to invade. Korea
represented a 180° turn.
The commercial Hollywood film output covering that period reflected society's overall ambivalence, with tired themes, generally retreads from World War II. Screenwriting required more than just a change of locale to give it inspiration.
The best of the lot is probably "The Bridges at Toko-Ri" (1954), where bravery combined with hopelessness and doom creates an effect which seems to anticipate Vietnam.
Last night at Toronto's Short Film Festival we had a rare opportunity to see John Ford's "This Is Korea!". We were especially lucky since author Dan Ford was there to introduce his grandfather's work and to answer questions.
While John Ford's documentary is not quite the film Korea has been missing, it is close to it, or as close as we are likely to come.
It compares well to Frank Capra's "Why We Fight" films, his propaganda series from World War II. There is the same happy balance between combat and comfortable civilian footage. There are villagers going about their business, children playing with sleds, kids getting vaccinations. Soldiers receive mail or hit the chow line to celebrate Christmas with steak dinner. Capra and his production unit successfully contrasted the War's goal -- represented by civilian footage -- with the means to that end -- combat footage -- and Ford uses the same technique. Urgency is added by shots of refugees and orphans.
Capra's films always have a strong educational purpose; that is largely absent from Ford's. Capra's films use stock footage and animation to illustrate an historical chain of incidents leading to the present. Korea does not lend itself well to that approach, but Ford has a better reason for not adopting it:
No stock footage!
Ford's film uses new material almost exclusively, brand new and in colour. The colour brings an immediacy which footage about the infantry would generally not have until Vietnam. (I do recognize that there are exceptional black & white World War II films like "The Battle of San Pietro", for example.)
There is an unaccustomed realism here. The Koreans wear national costume on occasion, something they never did on "M*A*S*H". The Koreans even look Korean; the "Koreans" at the 4077 were Chinese half the time.
But the combat footage here really stands out: artillery, mortars, rockets, night-time naval gunfire. When a bomb lands nearby, the camera shakes. Bombs often land nearby. Houses burst into coloured flame. Advances take place over authentic wintry Korean mountains. You shiver right along with the racially integrated GIs and the North Korean POWs standing in that frigid wind. "Remember Valley Forge?" is the narrator's rhetorical question. Walter Huston would have had that line in a Capra film.
When the narrator says, "This is Korea, chums. This is Korea", the viewer doesn't doubt it for a moment. When he wonders aloud, "What's it all about?", he doesn't really try to answer. He doesn't have a flag-waving response for that one.
I was not expecting a film this interesting to come out of the Korean conflict, so perhaps my initial enthusiasm is misjudged. But I hope and expect not.
Hollywood made a routine Korean War film in 1952, "Retreat, Hell!" with Frank Lovejoy. That film dramatizes the fighting retreat by US Marines from the Chosin Reservoir and includes some actual napalm strikes on snowy hillsides. Those napalm strikes come from the real retreat, as shown right here in "This Is Korea!", only here they're not in black & white, and you will find some details Hollywood omitted, like the Marine corpses being dragged through the snow.
"Retreat, Hell!" takes its title from the famous quotation by Marine Gen. O.P. Smith (as embellished by some helpful journalists, they say). Gen. Smith appears in this film. It really is the real McCoy.
Ford has a great deal of first-class footage and he usually allows it to speak for itself. The narration is mercifully sparse when it isn't necessary.
Anyone interested in the director's trademarks will note "O Little Town of Bethlehem" being sung at the beginning, much as it would be in other films from this period like "Rio Grande" (1950) or "Wagonmaster" (same year). Ford shows commendable restraint here with only one song to set the mood.
Given this films rarity and its quality, it really does warrant a second look.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Some of the photographers involved in this pep piece must have put
their necks on the line. They were embedded with the First Marines and
some of the detonations are pretty close. None of it is stock footage.
It's all original, shot for this documentary.
And it's identifiably Fordian, alternating as it does between gruff understatement, mostly by narrator John Ireland, and plaintive sentimentality by narrator Irving Pichel, whose voice you will recognize from "How Green Was My Valley" and "She Wore A Yellow Ribbon." It smacks of Ford, and he evidently put a good deal of effort into it. The time spent was counted as active duty and led to his promotion to Rear Admiral before his retirement.
Yet it's not a poetic piece and it's not strictly educational. What it LOOKS like, with its inexpensive Republic Studios "Truecolor", is somebody's home movies, a mosaic of images put together by editors and "supervised," as the credits have it, by John Ford. One imagines Ford sitting through a rough screening and issuing orders about where to use the Marine Corps Hymn and suggesting the dialog that might be dubbed in when Chesty Puller is speaking on the handy talky.
The crew assembling the film must have known exactly what Ford would want because, if you associate a certain piece of the mosaic with Ford's previous work, you're liable to find it here. The GIs singing "Silent Night" at Christmas. Korean nuns. Military funerals. Mass, geometrically aligned crosses in cemeteries. Shots of wounded men, bleeding or smoking on stretchers.
But it's all a bit confusing because of the way it's assembled. First we see the Marines "coming back", worn out. Then we see them when they "started out." Then we see them in combat. Then we see them coming back again. And without any orientation we have no idea of where they began or where they went.
The narrative is not much help. Ireland's comments are chiefly from the grunts' point of view. "A hard rubble road . . . Fire Number One Gun! . . . Enemy shell, look out! . . . Plenty of thirty-caliber ammunition for the hungry machine guns." Sometimes it's almost embarrassing in its datedness. Of enemy prisoners, "But these mugs are tough. They clammed up and won't sing." Most notably the voice-over narration gives practically no sense of place. "Then the heart-breaking order comes: burn everything and bug out." Burn what? Bug out from where? And, "All night long the Mighty Mo pounded the beach." What beach? Pichel's narration is no more helpful. "Burn out the dug-in Commies . . . Stop the Red scourge." One of "the poor little kids" to whom the Marines give candy and chewing gum is named "Babe Ruth DiMaggio." I don't mean to sound cynical about the goals of the conflict or too caustic about the film itself, which I assume was never meant to be a work of art. God knows, it's too bad the war ended in a virtual stalemate. South Korea has had its dictators, to be sure, but North Korea has become a self-contained and semi-suicidal sump of paranoia.
Ford claimed that he was involved in every aspect of the production and spent numerous hours being catapulted from aircraft carriers, slogging up and down mountains, and all the rest, but Ford was a notorious liar. He seemed to treat BS or, pardon me, blarney as an art to be practiced during interviews. In the case of this film, I suspect he saw it after it was put together and made a few suggestions that might play better with an unsophisticated wartime audience.
This is Korea! (1951)
*** (out of 4)
Nice documentary about Ford tries to explain why we entered the Korean War and also shows what torments the people in South Korea were going through when we entered. Ford was no stranger to this type of documentary as he made quite a few of them a decade earlier with his WWII films. I wouldn't say this was better than any of them but at the same time there's some very interesting stuff here. From what I've read this contains most, if not all, of the color footage from the Korean War and that alone makes this film quite important. There's really no story being told as we just keep seeing soldiers, fighting, bombs exploded and countless gunfire. I'm not exactly an expert on Ford but while watching this film it just seemed like he was a very patriotic man who wanted people in American to fully realize and see the dangers that American soldiers were in while doing their jobs. The camera never looks away from death and it appears the director wants people to be reminded that many people go to war and given themselves up to never come back. As far as the footage goes we get a lot of great shots including some aerial stuff where we see an incredibly long line a refugees just looking for a place to go. The color footage perfectly shows off the land, the fighting and some rather amazing look fires along the way. I'm sure there are better documentaries out there that tells the story of the war but this one here does it's job and it worth viewing by history buffs.
Like most Americans, I don't really know anything about the Korean War. I was really surprised, actually, to learn that it began so soon after WWII. I would have guessed it began a decade after that. This documentary doesn't have much substance actually. More or less, we watch almost 50 minutes of constant gunfire, bombing, and soldiering. It can be rough going. However, the footage (it was the only color documentary made in Korea) is absolutely amazing, and the film itself is constructed skillfully. The narration is surprisingly somber. It's almost as if John Ford had wanted to make propaganda, but couldn't quite do it. There is no clear reason why we were there. The official explanation seems simple enough: the containment of communism. Communism is referred to as "the giant red hand, squeezing the people of Korea" or "the red scourge." We are there, it is said, to help the people, who are starving under communist rule. But that doesn't seem to be enough for the film, and it never answers the questions that it asks. 8/10.
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