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The last ever RKO Pictures release to be produced under the aegis of Howard Hughes, One Minute to Zero (1952) provided a testosterone-fueled perspective on the impact of air power on the Korean War, utilizing the cooperation of the U.S. military and a surplus of authentic combat footage. These elements, as well as effective comic relief and a credible romance, were skillfully pulled together by the underrated director Tay Garnett, whose resume had already been marked by such notable combat tales as Bataan (1943) and Soldiers Three (1951)
In the spring of 1950, with forces mobilizing on both sides of the 38th Parallel, Air Force Col. Steve Janowski (Robert Mitchum) is advising South Korean troops on anti-tank maneuvers when the first hostile fire comes from the North. With warfare underway, Janowski and brother-in-arms Col. John Parker (William Talman) are directed to get all American citizens out of the country, a task made exceedingly difficult by Mrs. Landa Day (Ann Blyth), a willful U.N. functionary with no intention of leaving quietly.
With that mission accomplished, Parker heads to Japan, where the brass is determined to remain entrenched in the South. Janowski, hoofing through the battlefields with the grizzled but amiable Sgt. Baker (Charles McGraw), rallies a pinned-down company and bolsters the confidence of their tough but overmatched topkick Capt. Ralston (Richard Egan). An enemy grenade results in Janowski's hospitalization, and he takes the opportunity during his recovery to reunite with Landa. As their relationship grows, he learns why she has reservations about being involved with a military man. It makes it all the more difficult for Steve to return to the front, on a near-impossible mission to close up a critical supply line.
While Blyth is effective as the plucky aid worker/romantic interest, she was recruited for the role at the last minute. With three-quarters of the location shooting in the can, the originally cast Claudette Colbert was stricken with pneumonia, and had to drop out of the production. Garnett had flown in from the Colorado Springs location to Hollywood in order to lobby for Joan Crawford's services, only to have Hughes instruct him to turn around. The script had to be retooled on the fly to make the role age-appropriate for the younger Blyth. She registered well with Mitchum, notably in a dinner sequence where they performed a charming rendition of the Japanese folk song Tell Me Golden Moon.
While the frigid temperatures on location were very trying, Garnett recalled in his autobiography Light Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights how circumstances, all in all, could have been worse. "One of the delights of working for Mr. Hughes was that his film companies went platinum-plated First Class," he wrote. "Our cast and crew (about 200 people) were housed in Anderson Company weatherproofed tents having plywood floors covered with heavy linoleum. Each tent had its own heating unit, private shower, and bathroom facilities."
In his heyday, it would be unusual for any shoot of Mitchum's to go off without incident, and One Minute to Zero proved no exception. On an evening where he, Egan, McGraw and other cast members stopped into the hotel bar for refreshment, an argument between McGraw and an army private escalated into a shoving match; Mitchum's efforts to break it up only resulted in a furious fistfight. The soldier got the worst of it, having to be stretchered out when the dust settled. "The incident might have rated only a paragraph," biographer George Eells recounted in Robert Mitchum (Franklin Watts ), "had Mitchum's adversary not turned out to be [a] former light heavyweight professional boxer with a record of twenty-six wins--nineteen of them knockouts--and two losses between 1946 and 1947."
Egan recounted for Eells that "the military authorities were going to withdraw permission for us to continue filming until Howard Hughes stepped in and pulled some strings to get the camera rolling again." The experience bonded Egan with the star; Mitchum would also form a fast and profound friendship with Egan's brother, a priest. "Working with him I learned a lesson of generosity that I have seldom encountered in this business," Egan stated. "To him the better the actors, the better the picture...Many a career has been inhibited because a star didn't want strong competition. Mitchum not only didn't object, he welcomed you."
Producer: Edmund Grainger
Director: Tay Garnett
Screenplay: William Wister Haines, Milton Krims, Andrew Solt
Cinematography: William E. Snyder
Film Editing: Robert Belcher
Art Direction: Albert S. D'Agostino, Jack Okey
Music: Victor Young
Cast: Robert Mitchum (Col/Brig. Gen Steve Janowski), Ann Blyth (Mrs. Landa Day), William Talman (Col. Joe Parker), Charles McGraw (Sfc. Baker), Margaret Sheridan (Mary Parker), Richard Egan (Capt./Maj. Ralston).
by Jay S. Steinberg