Classic Korean War Dramas – By Philip Smolen

The Korean War (1950-1953) ended almost 60 years ago. Forgotten by many Americans, this conflict is still remembered by thousands of veterans worldwide who fought bravely and carry the scars of war with them. In the world of cinema, the Korean War is nearly forgotten as well. Compared to films about World War II and Vietnam, Hollywood chose not to make as many about the Korean War (perhaps as a reflection of the American public’s attitude about the war). However, there are still notable examples. So to celebrate Memorial Day 2012, here is a brief look at three excellent films about the Korean conflict.

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1. The Steel Helmet (Lippert Pictures, 1951 – Director: Sam Fuller)

In the early days of the war, an orphaned South Korean boy (William Chun) joins up with an American Sergeant (Gene Evans) after he escapes from the North Koreans. They reluctantly join a motley collection of GIs who have to establish an observation post in a Buddhist temple. Director Sam Fuller takes this basic premise and creates a haunting look at war and its accompanying brutality. Gene Evans creates an iconic character in Sergeant Zack, a hulking burned out shell who knows that to survive war one can’t have feelings for anyone or anything. Fuller casts an unflinching eye at the foibles of his characters and the accompanying racism that they harbor. “The Steel Helmet” has lost none of its power and clarity and after 61 years, remains an unwavering look at the horrors of modern warfare.

2. The Bridges at Toko-Ri (Paramount, 1954 – Director: Mark Robson)

Pilot Harry Brubaker (William Holden) served his country during World War II and is now deeply resentful that his reserve unit has been called up to serve in the Korean conflict. But being a man of honor, Brubaker goes to war once again battling intense feelings of fear and dread. Rather than being a typical Hollywood “feel good” war film, “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” is a compelling look at men in combat and the psychological “war” that goes on in their minds while they struggle to fulfill their mission. Holden is terrific as the confused Brubaker and Mickey Rooney and Earl Holliman give endearing performances as vulgar members of a helicopter rescue team. Aided by Oscar winning special effects (by the great John P. Fulton), “The Bridges at Toko-Ri” is that rare Hollywood war film that has heart as well as brawn.

3. Pork Chop Hill (United Artists, 1959 – Director: Lewis Milestone)

As the Korean peace talks in Panmunjom slowly wind down to the inevitable truce, Lieutenant Joe Clemmons (Gregory Peck) is given the unenviable task of capturing Pork Chop Hill, a seemingly worthless piece of Korean real estate. Now he must find a way to keep his troops fighting knowing full well that the war could end at any minute. Director Lewis Milestone (who directed the excellent “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “A Walk in the Sun”) is in top form here as he holds a magnifying glass to the insanity of war and the bravery and determination of troops who have to survive the madness. Peck is excellent as the caring commander who would like nothing better than to stop the suffering of his men, but time after time has to send them into the belly of the beast. “Pork Chop Hill” is a bleak and harrowing look at war and its grim realities.

And I’d like to send a special thank you to all of my fellow veterans. Thank all of you for your unflinching service and sacrifice to our country. You are not forgotten.