On three films from just a three-year period that nonetheless reflect three stages of Korean War cultural representation.
1) Retreat, Hell! (1952): World War II was unquestionably the first American military conflict which featured propaganda films made and released while the war was ongoing. But it seems to me that the Korean War, shorter as it was, saw the release of even more Hollywood feature films, with more than 20 released between 1951 and 1953. Every one is its own text and worth individual analysis of course, but overall they clearly served as cultural propaganda for the war effort, as illustrated with particular clarity by Retreat, Hell! U.S. forces had by the time of this film’s February 1952 release indeed retreated back to the 38th Parallel after their initial invasion of North Korea—but from its title on, the film made the case for resisting or at least reversing that retreat and continuing the offensive. Douglas MacArthur was no doubt a fan!
2) Cease Fire (1953): As this week’s series illustrates, the U.S. offensives did not continue and the war did indeed end in July 1953 (or at least was permanently paused, as I noted on Monday). Released just a few months later, Cease Fire thus portrays the war’s final events and conflicts, reflecting quite strikingly how these cultural representations evolved in real-time alongside the histories. But Cease Fire also features another, even more striking and pretty fraught innovation: it featured extensive footage of real soldiers and ammunition filmed on location in Korea, not stock or newsreel footage but new footage filmed for the movie itself. Long before the Gulf War’s evolution of the controversial concept of “embedded reporters,” here we have nothing short of an embedded film production, which I’d call an even more controversial concept!
3) The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954): Illustrative as those two films are of different stages and innovations of Korean War filmmaking, neither they nor any other of those 20-plus films released during the conflict have occupied much of a place in the cultural zeitgeist over the 70 years since. The first Korean War film that has really endured is 1954’s Bridges—and while that’s unquestionably due to its impressive pedigree (it was based on a novel by James Michener and stars William Holden, Grace Kelly, Fredric March, and Mickey Rooney among others!), I would argue that it also reflects how even a year of distance can allow films to serve as thoughtful historical fiction, rather than immersive propaganda. Bridges has been described as a subtle anti-war film, and I’d say that’s exactly right—its portrayal of the destructive effects of war on individual soldiers and their loves makes for an excellent pairing with the even more famous WWII film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). All these films are worth remembering, but Bridges stands out for good reason to be sure.
Next post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Any other Korean War contexts you’d highlight?