Reeling Backward: Pork Chop Hill (1959)
A gritty and surprisingly raw war film that shows the heroism and anguish of American soldiers in equal portions, not to mention rank military incompetence.
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Lewis Milestone was famous for his war films and for being one of the few directors who was equally adept both before and after the transition to sound pictures. He won the Academy Award for directing in two of the first three years it was given out, for “Two Arabian Knights” and “All Quiet on the Western Front” respectively, earning yet another nomination the following year for “The Front Page.”
“Pork Chop Hill” was his last war film, a gritty and surprisingly raw effort that depicts the heroism and anguish of American soldiers during the Korean War in equal measure, not to mention being one of the first Hollywood films to depict rank military incompetence.
A star vehicle for Gregory Peck as Lt. Joe Clemons, the film was based on the book by military historian Brigadier General S. L. A. Marshall. It, and the movie, used the real names of the soldiers involved whenever possible, including Clemons, who led King Company to retake the eponymous hill from combined Chinese/North Korean forces, though most of his unit was killed or injured.
The battle (actually two) for Pork Chop Hill took place as U.S. and Chinese officials negotiated a cease fire miles away in Panmunjom. Though the location had no military or strategic value, the opposing forces continued to suffer egregious losses fighting for control of it, simply to serve as a bargaining chip.
The screenplay by James R. Webb (an Oscar winner for “How the West Was Won”) actually opened with the negotiations, but it was felt that the resulting film took too long in introducing Peck — reputedly Mrs. Peck was the primary complainer — so these scenes were reduced to b-roll that plays over the opening credits sequence. We do get a small sliver of them near the end.
“Pork Chop Hill” is a solid war picture notable today for two things: a realistic viewpoint from the soldiers’ eye level that borders on cynicism; and a cavalcade of young actors who would go on to notable careers: Martin Landau, Rip Torn, Norman Fell, Harry Dean Stanton, George Peppard, Robert Blake, Abel Fernandez, Clarence Williams III and Harry Guardino among them.
James Edwards, a proto-Sidney Poitier type, also shines as a take-charge Black corporal in the recently integrated armed forces, and the always reliable Woody Strode turns up as a salty malingerer who at one point threatens to frag Lt. Clemons.
Another interesting presence is George Shibata, who was the first Asian-American to graduate from West Point, where one of his classmates and buddies was the real-life Clemons, who served as technical adviser on the film. He ran into Shibata and suggested him for the role of executive officer Lt. Suki Ohashi, the film Clemons’ right-hand man.
A pilot during the Korean War, Shibata has an easygoing charisma for a novice actor, and would go on to appear in films and television throughout the 1960s. His presence as a Japanese-American fighting alongside white and Black soldiers against an Asian enemy goes uncommented upon, and his authority or loyalty are never questioned.
Though at one point, Ohashi offers to scout alone to the top of the hill, and throws back a joking caution not to get trigger-happy when they see him coming back.
The actual battle scenes are grim and kinetic, as we watch the trenches and ground get gradually pulverized into a twisted, hellish landscape like that seen in “1917.” We see soldiers get injured and bloodied, including Blake as Pvt. Velie, a plucky little novice who loses his rifle and gets appointed as a runner by Clemons.
What really stands out for me about the film is the constant complaining, questioning of orders and outright despair of the American soldiers. These are just not things we saw depicted in mainstream movies in 1959. John Wayne surely spat.
Things start out with one dogface, presumably a draftee, insisting that he has enough “points” amassed to complete his service and should be mustered out immediately, before the attack on the hill begins. He’s especially keen to go home because he won a new Cadillac in a contest. Clemons agrees that he’s probably right, but suggests he sue the Army as his only recourse.
Another soldier complains about the weight and heat of the bulletproof vest he must wear, and then later he gets his foot blown off. He’s carried away on a litter, writhing in pain but also bitterly yelling about the horrid irony of it all.
Peck gives a solid, straightforward performance as a relatively green officer given an impossible task and little support to do it. He puts up a strong front but grows increasingly resentful as his requests for reinforcements, ammo and supplies are ignored and his communications are jammed. It’s a strong indictment of the military advances in technology post World War II that were supposed to make fighting more civilized.
“Where's all this push-button warfare we've been hearing about?” Ohashi asks.
“We are the push buttons,” Clemons caustically responds.
They are also continually taunted by a propagandist radio broadcast from speakers all over the hill. The Chinese officer (Viraj Amonsin) speaks very good English and is surprisingly empathetic in his outreach, talking about how they are all young men who should be looking forward to their lives after the war. (I kept wondering why Clemons didn’t order the speakers shot down.)
“Pork Chop Hill” isn’t a great movie, but it is a good and interesting one.
Milestone reportedly clashed with Peck on the set, asking him to give an anxiety-driven performance but the leading man preferring a more traditional heroic mien. As a result the movie ends on an incongruously upbeat note, with Clemons opining on how their ridiculous, deadly defense of an insignificant hill will protect future American lives, or some such bother.
It wasn’t the last time the director would run afoul of his star. After going on to helm the original “Ocean’s Eleven,” a big hit, Milestone’s storied film career ended on a down note with 1962’s “Mutiny on the Bounty.” Milestone was brought in to replace the original director, who left in a huff, and found himself pushed aside by star Marlon Brando. Brando and his flunkies rewrote the script daily and the actor took to running scenes himself. By Milestone’s own account, he would go off and read the newspaper while Brando directed.
An ignominious end to one of the great early directing careers, which also included “The Strange Love of Martha Ivers” and the original “Of Mice and Men.”