Pork Chop Hill (1959)


(director: Lewis Milestone; screenwriters: James R. Webb/essays of S. L. A. Marshall; cinematographer: Sam Leavitt; editor: George Boemler; music: Leonard Rosenman; cast: Gregory Peck (Lt. Joe Clemons), Harry Guardino (Pvt. Forstman), Rip Torn (Lt. Walter Russell), George Peppard (Cpl. Chuck Fedderson), Carl Benton Reid (American Admiral at Peace Conference), James Edwards (Cpl. Jurgens), Bob Steele (Col. Kern), Woody Strode (Pvt. Franklin), George Shibata (Lt. Suki Ohashi), Norman Fell (Sgt. Coleman), Lew Gallo (Lieutenant, Division Public Relations), Robert Blake (Pvt. Velie), Barry Atwater (Lt. Col. Davis, battalion commander); Runtime: 98; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Sy Bartlett; United Artists; 1959)
“Told in a hard-nosed style.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Considered by many to be the first modern war film. The hard-hitting realistic war drama, with an all-male cast, is set entirely on the battlefield in 1953 during the last days of the “police action” in Korea, as a peace conference is being held seventy miles away at Panmunjom, Korea, between American and Communist representatives. It should be noted that there were very few war films made about the Korean War, and this might be the best. It’s based on the eyewitness essays of ex-soldier and historian S. L. A. Marshall and the screenplay is by James R. Webb. Lewis Milestone (“Ocean’s Eleven”) does great work in showing the spectacle of war and its ironies, making another great anti-war film but just a notch below his “A Walk in the Sun” and “All Quiet on the Western Front.”

Lt. Joe Clemons (Gregory Peck), the stalwart “K” Company commander, is told by division commander Col. Davis to retake the area in the neutral zone known as Pork Chop Hill that was just taken back by the Chinese Reds and is assured that “L” Company will protect his flank. The irony is that these are the last days of the war and that the hill has no military value. That the lives of the men are placed in such jeopardy for a target that has no value, except perhaps as a chip at the peace conference. There hasn’t been a film before or since that makes its case so clearly about the pointlessness of war and how the troops are perceived as pawns by those who wield political power. The film’s most poignant statement says “It [meaning the hill] becomes valuable because so many already have died.” It builds to the realization that the Chinese picked this fight over the hill exactly because “its value is that it has no value” and they are willing to fight for it because to not fight means a loss of face. The head of the peace conference for the Americans believes the Chinese are testing us to see if we are willing to fight for something that has no value. Evidently we are, as Peck points out we lost so many men already that the hill has become valuable just because of that.

It ends on a note that is similar to all those gung-ho WWII films from the 1940s and 1950s, as after Peck’s troops have held the hill with the help of last minute reinforcements and taken heavy losses in the bloody assault (started out with 135 men and only 28 survived) he states in a narration: “Millions live in freedom today because of what they did.” The film has other flaws, as it demonizes the Chinese Reds in one-dimensional caricature form as incarnations of evil–the same way the Japanese and Nazis were in the standard WWII film. Nevertheless the war drama is literate, well-acted, beautifully photographed and told in a hard-nosed style.

It was produced by Gregory Peck as the first — and only — film from Peck’s Melville Pictures (I see Ahab somewhere in that name).