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Thursday, March 15, 2012

Pork Chop Hill (1959) - Just Get Through the Day

Hollywood never really has known what to do with the Korean War.  With no winner and loser, the best it could come up with was to make light of the whole thing, as in "MASH."  However, it was a real war and men died in it, so there were a few serious looks at it as well.  "Pork Chop Hill" is one of those rare occasions.

A real-life soldier at the battle

 This is one of the great war films, not because it shows some epic event such as "Pearl Harbor" or aspires to maudlin sentimentality and false realism like "Saving Private Ryan," but because it shows the ordinary plight of common people who happen here to be soldiers. It is similar to "A Walk in the Sun," another look at the men who transact the small change of large military transactions.  Nobody really wins or loses anything, it is all about the experience and how to adversity.

The details of the military action really aren't all that important. For what it's worth, a small band of ordinary US and Korean soldiers is sent on an ordinary day to take an ordinary hill during the Korean War. For no good reason except to make a point, the other side - the Chinese - decide to make a major effort to keep the hill. Badly understrength, the Allies manage to take the hill, but because of ongoing peace talks their superiors are racked by doubt about how much strength to commit. So, the odds against the Allied force, who are starved of reinforcements and supplies, become extreme as the military pressure on them mounts and the Chinese try every trick to make them give up the hill, including propaganda broadcasts.

In truth, this film doesn't even have to be appreciated as a war film, though that is the setting. It is a story of people put into an extremely difficult situation who have to make do. Not given the tools to accomplish the job easily, it has to be accomplished the hard way. And here, it is very hard.

This film is packed with character actors, several of whom later became stars and all of whom made their names in Hollywood. But it is difficult to recognize many of them beneath the mud and grime. Robert Blake, George Peppard, Rip Torn, Harry Guardino, Woody Strode, Martin Landau (his first role), Gavin MacLeod, Harry Dean Stanton, Clarence Williams III - if made ten years later, this film would have cost millions more and in truth been impossible to produce. Norman Fell, the most under-appreciated actor in Hollywood, here begins his startling resume of top films like "Bullitt" and "The Graduate." And not to mention star Gregory Peck, who plays a courtly leader struggling to maintain his composure while watching good men die for what both he and they realize is a big fat nothing.

One of the aspects I especially like is that you have a multicultural force that simply does its job. I dislike films that are obvious about the "we are all just brothers under the skin, so won't you just like me even though we're different because I am deferring to you" politically correct party line. This film avoids the clichés and the pathos and the racial grovelling and shows folks of all backgrounds stuck in a miserable hole together and just getting through the day. Everyone is facing a common enemy. In this film, the enemy is carrying guns, but it could just as easily be a corporate deadline or a sales quota or a fight to cure a diseased patient. The same principles apply in other walks of life. Who succeeds and who has difficulties depends on that enemy and their own capabilities and problems, not on each others' hangups. As it is, or should be, in ordinary life.

This is a film that should make you think. You don't have to be a big fan of military films to appreciate it. You should see it some time.

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