Retreat, Hell! (1952) Poster

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Good Example of the Genre.
Robert J. Maxwell22 March 2009
Warning: Spoilers
It's surprising that there isn't a decent DVD available for "Retreat, Hell!" It's a good example of the kind of war movie that was produced during World War II and a few of the post-war years, before the war was reexamined and faced more realistically.

It has elements of all the generic conventions. Frank Lovejoy is the Marine colonel who has to whip his battalion of raw recruits (is there any other kind?) and retreads into shape. His tactic for achieving this is to morph into Frank Lockjaw. Only towards the end does he begin to show his more sensitive side. Yes, on the surface he may be crusty and hard-hearted. But underneath that, he's a real softy. It's a good thing they didn't dig any deeper into his character or they might have found another layer in which he was a real MEAN SOB.

Richard Carlson is the retread from World War II, a reservist pulled back into active duty as a company commander. He's forced to move his wife and two lovely kiddies into a Quonset hut and he's deprived of their company, despite his whining to Lockjaw. He toughens up though and learns to be a Marine first.

There is the kid, Russ Tamblyn, who at this stage of his career could not yet act, who must prove himself as much a Marine as the rest of the men in his family. (He looks about fourteen.) One of his brothers is an officer serving near Tamblyn's unit and we know at once, when Tamblyn asks for permission to visit after a battle, that the brother is KIA.

Then there is the somewhat slow, drawlin' Southrin boy who provides a bit of comic relief, though not much. And the Gunnery Sergeant who must harden his men for battle.

The usual conventions are followed. There is the mail call ritual, the fierce climactic speech about how we'll fight on and reach our goal, outnumbered and surrounded though we may be. The final entrance of the troops and equipment into Allied lines. And when some bystanders ask this ragged group what outfit they belong to, Frank Lovejoy (now thoroughly humanized) straightens up and replies proudly, "First battalion, United States Marines." It really does hark back to World War II movies. The enemy are faceless. The rifle shots don't sound like rifle shots at all. A fired weapon emits a modest ka-Whoosh instead of a loud pop. There is the tension of waiting while the enemy approach like black cockroaches over the snowy hills and our troops are out of ammunition until, at the last moment, the skies clear and cargo planes make the necessary drop, just as in "Battleground", a superior example of the genre.

Some of the engagements are shot in the hills around Hollywood, but there is some combat footage from Korea inserted too. The actual events have been cleaned up a bit for public consumption. The reason the Marines and the Army had been caught with their pants down is that they had sailed northward through the British lines as if on a picnic. MacArthur had found little resistance in North Korea and was determined to thrust quickly through to the Manchurian border, while the more prudent British adopted a cautious advance on a broad front. MacArthur had assured President Truman that there was no chance of Chinese intervention, a big misjudgment. MacArthur had also declared the men would be home by Christmas which didn't happen and this is mentioned by one or two characters in the film, but sadly, without bitterness. The retreat from the reservoir was genuine hell. The weather was bitterly cold and frostbite was common. The Chinese troops had more protective clothing than ours. And omitted from this movie are newsreel scenes of frozen bodies being dragged on sleds behind trucks during this slow, sixty-mile retreat.

I'd give this movie bonus points for having taken a chance on its being about a retreat instead of a victory. We don't hear much about Korea these days. It ended in a stalemate. Retreats, defeats, and stalemates are the stuff neither of legends or commercially successful movies. They don't follow the accepted scenario in which we either win or put up a gallant fight before being wiped out by a treacherous foe. "A Bridge Too Far" was another risky production. I doubt that this one would have been made in quite the way it was except for a proclamation by one Marine officer who, when asked if they were retreating, said, "Retreat, Hell. We're just advancing in a different direction." A ringing line like that is enough to transform our perception of what we are witnessing on the screen.
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Marine life.
greenheart11 February 2007
This is a war movie which focuses more on the feelings, emotions and insecurities of the platoon as well as providing a shed load of action & explosions. For this to work, you have to care about the characters. The hard edged Colonel is well portrayed and you can see the humanity leaking out of him as the pressure intensifies. The Captain who is centre of attention early n, fades into the background somewhat. The real star is young, fresh faced McDermid. You feel as if you are with him every step of his journey, you feel his nerves, pain & bravery. Although in black and white, you can almost see the red mist descend in one poignant scene. There are loads of explosions and plenty of action for the late night viewer but this is a war film with a deeper than average plot line.
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A War Film For Men Who Cry
Vornoff-330 June 2003
Now, don't get me wrong, `Retreat Hell' is an action-packed film, full of tension and combat, with the expected heroism and violence.

It's just that it has a...sensitive side. It somehow seems out of place for its time, more suited for the 70's than the '50s.

Richard Carlson is an unlikely hero for a war picture, particularly one from the hard-edged, patriotic 1950's. He's such a sensitive, nice fellow, and, to those of us accustomed to seeing him portray science-nerds (as in `Creature from the Black Lagoon' and `It Came from Outer Space') he may seem a tad intellectual for a leader of a Marine company. Even more unlikely is baby-faced Russ Tamblyn (who was still billing himself as `Rusty' at the time) as a rough-necked Marine Corps grunt. But that's the kind of picture this was: a war movie that dealt with the human face of war, even to the point of making `our boys' seem downright sentimental, but without being even remotely a vehicle for pacifist sentiments. It's an unusual, even eccentric approach, and at times it doesn't work, while at others it surprises with effectiveness.

There aren't very many war movies about Korea, today called `the forgotten war' in America. The most well-known one, `MASH,' was an unabashed allegory for Vietnam, and one quickly loses sight of the distinctions. `Retreat Hell' is much more specific, and accurate, in its portrayal of a war most Americans don't really know what to make of. It was the war we didn't quite lose, but certainly didn't win, and for the post-WWII generation, that was a perplexing legacy. Many of the more extreme patriots of the day chose to rationalize it by asserting we had been railroaded into the war by the UN, possibly as part of a Communist conspiracy. `Retreat Hell' avoids political uncertainties by focusing on the lives of brave but sympathetic soldiers, who did their duty as the American leadership saw fit to define it.

The title, which sounds like a statement of defiance (`like Hell we'll retreat') is actually a somber quotation from General MacArthur. At the time the forces in Korea had overextended themselves, and become surrounded on all sides. The order was given to break through the enemy lines to the sea. When asked about the retreat in Korea, the general replied `Retreat Hell, we're advancing in the other direction.' A retreat normally means falling back through your own lines to reach a stronger position, but this was an advance, through enemy lines, to a position that would allow a retreat.

Unlike many WWII pictures that were being made at the time, actual Asian actors were used to portray Asians, and not all of them were evil. The filmmakers evidently thought enough of their audience to remind them that the war was being fought for our Asian allies, not as a racist war against a generic enemy. In light of recent political developments, it is interesting to note that the British also make an appearance on our side. The Communist soldiers are portrayed as devious and callous, but not beyond the realities of the war (obviously Bad Things committed by our side are not shown) - they are not inhuman, merely the enemy.

This movie gives us both action and drama, and probably was a precursor to `Saving Private Ryan' in more ways than one.
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An insomniac's delight
Henry Willis2 September 1999
The local Fox channel in Los Angeles must have harbored a cell of fans of Retreat, Hell!, because it seemed as if they showed this film at least once a month in the hours between 2 and 5 a.m. I was hooked after one viewing, although I know I came in somewhere in the middle; it was some time before my erratic sleep patterns fell into synch with the program schedule. I can't recommend it too highly--it is a tribute to all cliches of all war movies to that date, without the distraction created by interesting characters, plot or technical skill. Watch it again and again and you'll understand.
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A Long-Ago War
dougdoepke12 March 2011
The movie traces Marine combat battalion from training base in California to South Korea's Inchon landing to North Korea's Chosin Reservoir and retreat from there to the coast for naval rescue.

Several notable features are in this otherwise fairly routine war film. First, it's surprisingly de-politicized for its sensitive time period. The movie was produced in 1952, at a time when the war in Korea had stalemated and anti-communist fervor (Senator McCarthy) was at a fever pitch stateside. One would expect a lot of talk about red aggression and Chinese hordes. However, there's hardly any explanation in the narrative about where the war is or why it's occurring! Instead, the screenplay focuses almost exclusively on Marine Corps professionalism from officers to NCO's to recruits.

Looks to me like the movie's purpose is to restore the Marines' popular image following the Chosin debacle, without getting involved in messy politics. After all, Marine combat in WWII had been one of steady advance across the Pacific; at the same time, footage of retreat in Korea shook American confidence in that murky war.

Another notable feature is the low-budget film's effort at recreating the horrendous winter weather that plagued the retreat. I recall newsreels of the time of the steep mountains and freezing snow being almost as scary as the combat itself. I doubt the retreat over those mountain passes would have succeeded without the continuous air support.

Notable too is the general absence of sometimes silly small talk that characterizes so many WWII combat films. That's understandable since the war in Korea was never popular and little understood at home, especially after the massive Chinese intervention. On the other hand, there's the kind camaraderie and bonding among the troops that could be expected, but none of the light-hearted victory-is-certain banter of 10-years earlier.

As other reviewers note, the combat itself is mostly a series of clichés. However, the acting is good and Tamblyn is perfect for his idealized all-American-boy role. But the movie itself is now largely a curiosity dramatizing as it does one of America's few military retreats.

(In passing—in my little book, the war was characterized by two massive blunders—first, North Korea's reckless belief that the US would tolerate a unified communist Korea only a few hundred miles from post-war Japan; and second, Gen. MacArthur's over-confident belief that China would somehow allow an American army on China's border {the Yalu river}. The result of these blunders was 3-years of war, thousands of dead, and most ironically, a return afterward to the same divided country {38th Parallel} as before the devastation!)
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A few more facts about the movie...
Hoplophile-118 November 2004
Much of the footage of the fighting in and around Seoul and near the Chosin Reservoir came from actual Marine Corps combat photographers (this was l-o-n-g before embedded reporters!). The "sensitive, caring" company commander (Richard Carlson) was a Marine reservist and veteran of WW II who was called back for Korea -- and carried some resentment of the recall with him. The comment "Retreat, hell, we're just attacking in another direction" has been variously attributed to 1st Marine Division Commander Major General Oliver P. Smith or to regimental commander Colonel (later LtGen) Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller. Douglas MacArthur spent most of his involvement in the Korean War in his Far East headquarters in Japan. The battalion executive officer in the movie, "Major Knox," was played by Peter Ortiz (a Ford favorite who appeared in What Price Glory and Rio Grande, both times wearing an eye patch), who was a real-life WW II Marine hero with the O.S.S. in France.
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Decent Korean War Film
gordonl5621 May 2015
Warning: Spoilers

This film, one of several that more or less, tell the same story about the U.S. Forces retreat from the Chosin Reservoir in North Korea.

The film starts in the States with ex-Marine officer, Richard Carlson being called back to active service. Carlson is not all that happy with the recall but reports. His commanding officer is hard as nails, Frank Lovejoy. It is the job of the few World War Two veterans to train the fresh recruits and whip them into combat ready soldiers.

Training is somewhat rushed because of the desperate situation going on in South Korea. The Reds have overrun most of the country and pushed the few surviving forces into a pocket on the southern end of the country.

U.S. Forces launch a counterattack by landing at Inchon and flanking the North Korean Army. The Reds soon cave and the chase is on all the way up the peninsula. Just as it looks like the war might end, the Chinese Red Army comes boiling over the border from China. This catches the U.N. forces by surprise forcing, shall we say, a rather retrograde manoeuvre.

The film follows Lovejoy's Marine battalion from training, through the Inchon landing, up through the North, and as they make their way back south.

The Marines are badly outnumbered, low on ammo and poorly supplied with winter equipment. The Chinese Reds throw massive human wave attacks at the unit. This causes a dangerous run on medical supplies, and further depletes the already low ammunition reserves.

It is only the odd air supply mission and constant air support that gives the Marines a chance to make their way to safety. Soon their trucks are out of fuel and they are forced to carry their growing collection of wounded. The Marines work their way through several more Red attacks and ambushes. Lovejoy gets wounded and Carlson must take command.

They are joined along the way by various other retreating units, including some British Royal Marines. Needless to say they manage to make it safely to the coast and are evacuated by sea.

The film, like, Alan Dwan's HOLD BACK THE NIGHT, Sam Fuller's THE STEEL HELMET, FIXED BAYONETS and Anthony Mann's MEN AT WAR all deal with this same retreat. This Joseph H. Lewis directed work is quite watchable, by not quite as good as these others. Alan Dwan directed the superb WW2 Marine film, SANDS OF IWO JIMA.

The acting is fine, and the look of the film is quite good with ex special effects man, Warren Lynch at the cinematography controls. The film's director, Joseph Lewis is best known for several cracker-jack film noir such as, SO DARK THE NIGHT, MY NAME IS JULIA ROSS, THE BIG COMBO and of course, GUN CRAZY.
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grim Korean War story
RanchoTuVu14 February 2008
The Korean War doesn't have the glory that goes with WW2, although there are a few films about that war that have helped shape an image of bitter fighting carried out in even more bitter weather conditions. Retreat, Hell! should be right up there with Pork Chop Hill as the definitive Hollywood depiction of that conflict. It has that deft mix of grim authenticity, of action, and of fine characterizations. It has to be one of Russ Tamblyn's best dramatic parts. A lot of well interspersed and well done action scenes of fighting in barren snow swept hilltops and ravines, with the finale being a furious Chinese charge right into the colonel's tent. In black and white, this film has a pervasive grimness to it, that contrasts with the story of a unit of Marines trying to keep up a sunny and positive spin on a desperate situation. It's a flag-waver, but exceedingly well done.
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A fighting retreat is not a defeat
captainamerica44011 November 2006
War is hell. This grim movie bears that out. At least this black and white movie is consistent from start to finish as it portrays United States Marines landing and later retreating in the frozen hell of Korea. The movie's redeeming qualities are its educational aspects and the actual combat footage. Story, dialog, casting, acting and special effects are all about average. I thought the characterization was better than average at times, as it showed Marines struggling with loss, despair, fear, hope, joy and even expressing compassion. Korea has been termed the forgotten war. That is unfortunate as it was and still is very relevant, even to this day. Witness the recent demonstration of nuclear power by North Korea and the consternation it has generated. The younger generation should be aware of our nations history and this movie can be a fun and enlightening way to do so. They might wonder what Chinese soldiers are doing there. At one point our movie's characters are almost saying a famous line from a later movie--"Who are these guys?" Overall, Retreat, Hell! is a respectable war movie.
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initially intriguing characters, drowned in patriotic sermon
Cristi_Ciopron16 November 2015
Warning: Spoilers
Directed by Joseph Lewis, 'Retreat …' has action, likable melodrama, well-meant drama (at 1st, I took it for a portrayal, of the captain, but then he morphs into a smiling, paternal officer, almost a priestly one; regardless, there is enjoyable, if conventional, mostly phony portraiture: the sensitive captain, the righteous colonel, the brave kid), a good small cast (playing marines from the 1st battalion of the USMC fighting in Asia, the plot picks up a few people), desolate wintry landscapes, barren frozen hills, 'actual combat film', some _fanfaronade …. Its militarism and colonialism are ideological and obtuse. They were so in the British boys' yarns written a century before this movie was made. J. Lewis makes no attempt at explaining this war, of giving its reason. He merely strives to boost the will to fight. The marines are a sheer grace by their mere presence in a foreign country. From this angle, it's sillier than the British colonialism, which hinted to an aim, beyond the hecatomb itself. 'Retreat …' upholds the militarist ideology of the yank foreign policy. Willis and Rourke have the same ideas today.

If you wish for a war movie, the director mastered the craft, Lewis meant to teach kids that fight is worth, also the pride of being a marine, and we are taught, with uplifting music, that 17 is a good age to go to war, because the President cares for you and your family, and the army will gulp as many sons as offered, perhaps the kids are at 1st a bit morose, but only until they come to learn; it's a lively, well directed movie (the smoothness of the ancient Hollywood, so misunderstood of its New Wave French fans …), with a mediocre script taken over by silliness and shamelessness. There are several battle scenes, exciting and suspenseful, like the one with the grenade, or the one with the bazooka and the tank; most of the acting, save the action scenes, which are enthralling, was phony and dissonant, perhaps it seemed less so 60 yrs ago, but perhaps to some it seemed offensive even then. The officers are chivalrous, kindhearted, sensitive and wise …. The captain himself is taught, and learns, grace to the prudence and insight of the colonel. In the 2nd avatar of the captain, his sunny, trusting smile made me almost suspicious of his sanity, but it became unequivocal that it was only meant to show his newfound optimism. At 1st, he was anxious, but then, with help from his colonel, he fights resolutely for his country.

As its main subplot (!), 'Retreat …' is a kids' movie, about a boy in war. The title means that the retreat becomes a victory march ('retreat my ass', the triumph of retreating victoriously). So pushing kids to enlist, why not, maybe Lewis believed in this rubbish. Yet I feel like I am being unfair to this movie, even on my own terms, even being given its phoniness; but the craft becomes a tool for militarism and colonialism, and for the will to fight without ever asking why. The objections aside, 'Retreat …' is likable, suspenseful, occasionally dramatic, at first funny, and nicely crafted by a man, J. Lewis, who knew his job and meant no harm.
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This movie is one for the collection, that is if you can find it !!!!!!!
valdezben27 August 2007
Reteat hell is a great movie for those that enjoy the old black and white war classics. Frank Lovejoy plays a good role as all the actors are in this movie ,and the battle scenes are great. What i can't understand is why this movie is not on DVD it seems that the studios are finally starting come around and starting to release the movies that are worth watching and putting in your collection two other movies that should be on DVD are PT109 with Cliff Robertson from 1963 and Merrill's Muraders with Jeff Chandler from 1962. Sam Fuller's Steel Helmet is in a box set with some other films by Fuller but what gets me is that you figure that you could buy Steel Helmet bye its self but you can only get the movie by buying the whole set.
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Character-focused Korean War drama
Leofwine_draca31 January 2018
Warning: Spoilers
RETREAT, HELL! is a fun and patriotic little Korean War movie with a greater emphasis on characterisation than most B-flicks of the era. Shot in black and white on a low budget with the copious use of (decent) stock footage of the real war, this follows a reluctant captain (played by CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON's Richard Carlson) as he leads his men against overwhelming numbers of Chinese and North Koreans during that violent escapade. The film's script is snappy and the characters are well drawn, even if only a few of them get our focus: Frank Lovejoy's no-nonsense lieutenant colonel stands out here, as does Russ Tamblyn's ever-so-youthful recruit (and it must have been one of the few times that an actor's age matched that of the character he played). RETREAT, HELL! doesn't have the finest action scenes you'll see, but it doesn't prove to be boring either, and I rather liked it.
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Retreat? Hell no!
tieman647 November 2009
Warning: Spoilers
This is a state supported war movie in which a Marrine Battalion Commander leads an amphibious landing, fights his way into North Korea and then makes a hasty retreat when the Chinese Army launches a massive assault.

In other words, it's "Saving Private Ryan" on a minuscule budget. The film even contains a mother who loses several of her sons in battle and receives a message from the President of the United States authorising the safe and immediate return of her surviving son. Of course the boy so loves the military, so loves the bonds and camaraderie of the army, that he refuses to leave and instead stays for one final battle.

The film is entirely generic - but then all war movies fall into only 5 categories. This one is rooted firmly in the "platoon genre", focusing entirely on the one dimensionality of the enemy, the weary camaraderie of the men, the horrors of combat, the importance of the mission and the ubiquity of death. Orders are always obeyed and no attempt is ever made to put the war in any meaningful context. Though the mission is always treated with scepticism, it is made clear that it must be completed at any cost.

6/10 - Director Joseph H. Lewis helms this film, but he is unable to recapture the magic of his early noir, "Gun Crazy". At least John Wayne's "The Sands of Iwo Jima" was dark in its portrayal of a drunk and emotionally damaged Marine Sergeant. Everyone in this film, in comparison, is ridiculously squeaky clean.

Worth one viewing.
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Ooh, I stumbled on another Korean War movie.
Spikeopath30 May 2009
We are in the Korean War, and a U.S. Marine battalion are desperately trying to get thru a snow laden mountain pass before the better equipped enemy kill them all. With their own supplies running out and many of the Marine's losing their belief systems, it's likely that death or glory are the only options.

Film's set during the Korean War are few and far between, it's almost as if it's an overlooked cinema topic in many ways. Pork Chop Hill and MASH aside, you would be hard pressed to name half a dozen films set in and around what has become the forgotten war. Now Retreat, Hell! is nothing to greatly shout about, and certainly it isn't fit to lace up the shiny boots of Gregory Peck's pork chop sizzler (sorry for that). It's however one of those films that you can stumble on with no expectation and enjoy purely on an interesting scale. Riddled with clichés and serving only to achieve its aim of bravado flag waving heroics, it carries a little emotional weight (soldiers insecurities and fears) and molds nicely the mounting tension (the wait for attack is itchy) with its competently handled gun fire. Directed by Joseph H. Lewis (7th Cavalry & The Big Combo) and starring Frank Lovejoy (In a Lonely Place & House of Wax) Richard Carlson (The Ghost Breakers & King Solomon's Mines) and a young and bouncy Russ Tamblyn (Tom Thumb & West Side Story). Retreat, Hell! wont have you hankering for another visit some time in the future, but hopefully, just like me, you will be glad that you at least gave it the time of day. 6/10
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