Sunday, July 29, 2012

DVR Diary: PORK CHOP HILL (1959)

Lewis Milestone's last work as a director was an episode of the TV show Arrest and Trial in 1964. He missed by just a short time a historic opportunity to apply his cinematic acumen to a fourth American war. Until then, every generation had its Milestone war film. The Great War generation got the first and best one, 1930's All Quiet on the Western Front, which arguably has not yet been topped as a movie portrayal of its subject. The "Greatest" generation got several World War II pictures, the best regarded of which is 1945's A Walk in the Sun. Filmed while the war was still on, Walk was inevitably a different kind of picture than All Quiet, though admirers credit it for a relative absence of propaganda and cliche -- much of which can be found in 1943's The North Star and 1944's The Purple Heart. Milestone continued to concern himself with WWII well into the Fifties, directing the decent Halls of Montezuma and a British commando movie, They Who Dare, that I haven't seen. Not until producer/star Gregory Peck recruited him for a dramatization of S.L.A. Marshall's account of the final battle for Pork Chop Hill in 1953 did Milestone turn his attention to the Korean conflict. The "police action" was a war Americans viewed with more ambivalence than the last one, and that gave Peck and Milestone leeway to make a grimmer, edgier picture while boasting of their fidelity to fact.

Peck played a real soldier, Joe Clemons, who led troops in the battle and survived to have a hand in the production. Clemons played talent scout in one noteworthy case, recruiting a fellow West Pointer and Korea veteran to play his real-life Japanese-American executive officer. Here, from a Garland UT newspaper, is the story of how George Shibata broke into the movies.

Shibata didn't get that Wagon Train part, as far as IMDB knows, but he did find work in movies and TV for another decade. I should have figured he had an inside track, since I assume James Shigeta otherwise had first crack at all Japanese-American roles in this period. Shibata brings credibility to a creditable performance that requires little in the way of histrionics and benefits from their absence.  Pork Chop Hill marks the movie debut not only of Shibata but of Martin Landau, who had been busy in TV previously and has only one prominent scene here. Shibata makes a better impression and better represents a certain inclusiveness, justified by facts, on the part of Clemons, Peck and Milestone. Korea was the first modern American war in which whites and blacks routinely fought side by side, and the producers make black actors conspicuous by their presence in comparison to most previous war movies. They actually take something of a chance by having the one malcontent in the cast be a black soldier played by Woody Strode. The part's a bit of a stretch for Strode, who has to play an angry malingerer grown sick and tired of a seemingly pointless fight. Peck as Clemons threatens Strode's "Franklin" (an intro notes that nearly all the soldiers' real names were used) with a court-martial and ten years in prison to keep him moving up the hill. Franklin finally snaps, luring Clemons into a trap where he can frag the officer and claim that he shot the man by mistake should Clemons fail to give the proper countersign. Rather than shoot Clemons, however, Franklin is more interested in making a speech -- one of the film's few false notes -- explaining his disinterest in Korea and his unwillingness to fight for anyone eles's cause. Clemons talks him down all too easily, but merely staging the scene was, as I said, taking a chance in this era. The film takes steps to pre-empt any conclusions that might be drawn from Strode's race by casting another black actor as a soldier of unquestioned loyalty and some eagerness to take Franklin down a few pegs. The Korean War was seen in retrospect as a laboratory in race relations, as illustrated not only by this film but by 1960's All the Young Men, in which Sidney Poitier must take command of a unit in the face of white distrust. I'll have to watch that sometime for comparison's sake.

In the starring role, Peck projects the same sort of harried professionalism that Shibata does. His frustration builds, without ever compromising his competence, as reinforcements, supplies, fresh weapons, etc. prove slow in coming, even as the military portrays him as the triumphant conqueror of the worthless hill. A professional tone prevails among the cast as a whole, with few of the actors getting real showcase moments except for Strode and Robert Blake as a somewhat dumbly heroic runner. The film's really about the situation rather than the personalities. Milestone can sink his teeth into the lethal pointlessness of the battle, as both Americans and Chinese acknowledge that Pork Chop has no strategic significance. Nevertheless, the battle has to be fought in order to prove a point to the Reds (the Chinese, one officer helpfully explains, are "not only Orientals, but Communists") who themselves want to prove a point to the Americans. The Chicoms are willing to spend blood and treasure to take the stupid hill just to show that they're willing. The Americans have to prove that they're no less willing, but it all reduces the actual soldiers, as they well realize, to chips on a bargaining or gambling table. Milestone occasionally cuts to the negotiations at Panmunjon in a way that seems designed to get you to root for a settlement before more soldiers die and to blame the Commies when negotiations stall. You also get chances to hiss the Reds when Milestone shows us a Chinese propaganda broadcaster exhorting the Yanks to surrender and tormenting them with Muzak renditions of "Autumn in New York" during lulls in the action.

As for the fighting, that's why Milestone is directing, and his old tricks still work. He stages some impressive nighttime hill climbing, and he never can go wrong with those lateral tracking shots of advancing troops he perfected in All Quiet. If Pork Chop's battle scenes don't have the visceral fury and terror of All Quiet's, the fact that Milestone doesn't speed up the action to synch it with machine-gun fire, as in the 1930 film, may have something to do with that. Pork Chop Hill is still an above-average battle picture, though the nearest it comes to All Quiet's intensity comes not on a proper battlefield but when the last 25 survivors of Clemons's unit barricade themselves in a shed, piling sandbags against the walls, doors and windows, as the Chinese hit the place with flamethrowers. It's a hell-raising climax and once it's resolved the film closes on a note of exhausted relief rather than victory, despite Peck's narrative boast that "millions of people live in freedom today because of what we did." The film itself belies that claim, and Milestone (despite alleged editorial tampering by Peck) found the right tone and note to close on. At his best, he has to be considered one of the better war-film directors ever, and he's near his best, probably for the last time, in Pork Chop Hill.

Gregory Peck was pretty impressed by his handiwork, as he explains in this trailer, uploaded by ClassicWarMovies1.


dfordoom said...

Quite a good war movie and interesting for its time. Since then that whole "futility of war" thing has been done to death and has become a particularly tedious cliche but in 1959 it was still interesting.

Samuel Wilson said...

You can't even really call it an anti-war film, either, so it doesn't have that level of well-meaning cliche on top of everything else. A comparison with Hamburger Hill, a very similar Vietnam movie in more than a geographic sense, would be very interesting.