Robert J. Lentz. Korean War Filmography: 91 English Language Features through 2000. McFarland, 2003. 496 pages; $45.00.
Impossible to Win
As a turning point in American history, the Korean War stood as an awkward transition between World War II and the Vietnam Conflict. This was the first time that American GIs fought under the United Nations flag, offering tangible credibility to President Truman's so-called doctrine of containment philosophy. It coined new words-brainwashing and turncoat-created a massive buildup of military might that endured for another two decades, and, by all accounts, became the first war that the United States lost.
At the same time, Hollywood churned out dozens of propaganda films to remind audiences that-in the end-truth, justice, and the Red-White-and-Blue would always prevail. But did they? Unlike the glory days of John Wayne, the Korean War photodramas took on an amorphous life of their own. While many titles supported this police action, other screenplays became critical, even caustic, about a confrontation that seemed impossible to win.
Perhaps that is why these motion pictures and the war, itself, have recessed into a state of national anonymity. However, as Robert J. Lenz has observed in his new study, Korean War Filmography: 91 English Language Features through 2000, Hollywood productions always serve as a mirror that allows a society introspection because then- titles reflect the contemporary social attitudes even if the content is distorted, misrepresented, confused, or skewed.
As Mr. Lenz explains, the first Korean War titles appeared by early 1951 just seven months after the Thirty-Eighth Parallel crossing. Two cinematic potboilers, Korean Patrol and A Yank in Korea, sugarcoated the ground combat while waving Old Glory but The Steel Helmet pushed aside the usual patriotic bromides and focused on the unsightly truths every ground-pounder encountered. Other photodramas routinely followed and by July 1953 approximately twenty moving pictures were released generally with storylines that used stock newsreel footage, cuts from World War II archives, and two-dimensional characterizations. Overall, Mr. Lenz muses, most of these productions were minor achievements.
But during the next five years, from 1954-59, Hollywood-now standing on its hindsight stool- made over thirty movies that depicted the police action in realistic terms. Titles such as The Bridges at Toko-Ri, the McConnell Story, Battle Hymn, and Pork Chop Hill exposed some of the misery associated with fighting a see-saw war on foreign soil, thousands of miles from home. …