By way of preface, I should say that I saw many, many war movies on TV up to 1981, growing up outside of Boston and watching Channel 56, which had a small but decent stock of films which it re-ran continually. Channel 38 and Channel 10 in Providence also had a decent supply of old movies. Since then I have, mostly voluntarily, not had regular access to a TV, and I don’t own one now, though I do occasionally watch a dvd on the “small screen” — our laptop. So, thinking about war movies is at least as much about childhood impressions of old war movies as it is about any mature appreciation of any of these.
The Korean War, the so-called forgotten war, has indeed largely been forgotten by Hollywood. But it did produce two good war movies which had a strong influence on me. Pork Chop Hill is a well-crafted combat film, with a stoic Gregory Peck at the center of a remarkable collection of character actors (Norman Fell, Robert Blake, Harry Guardino, Martin Landau, Rip Torn, George Peppard) playing the American grunts who capture the Hill and then have to hold off swarms of counter-attacking Chicoms. Gregory Peck’s troops are sent forward into battle, and then abandoned when the back-office decides it has lost enough men for a worthless hill. This cinematic depiction of betrayal and discarded courage and suffering has, I believe accurately, shaped my vision of authority ever since. The Bridges at Toko Ri is the tale of Navy aviator Harry Brubaker (William Holden) who served in World War II, and who voluntarily returns to service, leaving behind his lovely young wife (Grace Kelly) to go back into harm’s way. I first saw this movie when I was about eight years old. Holden is under-rated as one of the last, great Hollywood leading men. Mickey Rooney is solid as a brawling sailor who has saved Brubaker’s life once already, and dies trying to do so again. The movie drags a little in the middle, but all is forgiven for the closing minutes. Gripping scenes as the aircraft are launched, and streak toward the target. The planes fly into a narrow valley, through a hail of flak, to take out the bridges. Brubaker’s F9F Panther is hit. He cannot make it over that last ridge to ditch in the sea. (A little kid in pajamas is sitting on the couch saying “oh no, oh no, oh no …”, but the Navy aviators on the TV are all business.) His buddies try to keep the chicoms away from his crash site, strafing with guns and rockets. The closing scene, set in “a muddy ditch in Korea,” has stuck with me ever since as the true face of the sacrifices made for freedom.
Sometimes the good guys die.