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During the Korean War, the lieutenant in charge of a Marine rifle platoon is killed in battle. Before he dies, he places the platoon's sergeant, who's black, in charge. The sergeant figures on having trouble with two men in his platoon: a private who has much more combat experience than he does, and a racist Southerner who doesn't like blacks in the first place and has no intention of taking orders from one. Written by
The U.S. armed forces were officially desegregated in 1948, and the Korean War (1950-1953) was the first modern conflict in which Americans of every heritage fought side by side. This less-than-spectacular GI movie -- albeit with a couple of big names -- is one of the few instances in which Hollywood has dealt with racial tensions in "America's Forgotten War."
The story, set in the dead of a Korean winter, focuses on a squad of Marines holed up in a farmhouse behind Chinese lines. The two main characters are the unit's only black member (played by Sidney Poitier) and its oldest and most seasoned member (played by Alan Ladd). When the young black man finds himself thrust into command of his comrades, the white old-timer is resentful.
Poitier and Ladd are the best part of the movie. These two pros have great "anti-chemistry." They play off each other superbly, portraying a mutual dislike that has a grudging undertone of respect. When "All the Young Men" was made, Ladd's star was sinking and Poitier's was rising, and that gives an added poignancy to their confrontation.
Unfortunately, the movie doesn't give Ladd's character any identifiable racial motivation, however misguided. Instead, the sin of bigotry is embodied in a lone Marine, a stereotypical white Southerner (played by veteran TV villain Paul Richards). He's not just a racist, he's loathsome in every way. This is a cop-out. Institutionalized racism would never have lasted so long without the acquiescence or subtle support of many "decent" people.
And speaking of cop-outs, why does a movie about racial issues give us a Korea almost devoid of Asians? The "Chinese" soldiers keep their faces covered. The main Korean character is played by an Argentine actress wearing Charlie Chan-style eye makeup. In 1960, this sort of thing should have been over. (Though the character sounds Latin American, the movie's explanation of her looks and accent is that she is half-French. The French presence in Korea was never very great, but apparently Hollywood was already starting to confuse Korea with Indochina.)
I have to mention the motley crew of supporting characters. The casting is truly offbeat, with such non-actors as comedian Mort Sahl and boxing great Ingemar Johansson. James Darren is on hand to carry a rifle and sing a song, and even Johansson warbles a tune. The least believable scene in the film (and many are none too convincing) is when combat-weary Marines laugh themselves silly over Sahl's meandering monologue about bureaucracy and society. It's the kind of jabber that would put real Marines to sleep.
Returning briefly to the issues of race and realism, the character of "Chief," who's supposed to be a Navajo Indian, is played by an actor who looks nothing like a Navajo. But at least he's not wearing eye makeup.
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