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Mission over Korea

Mission over Korea(1953)

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In a directing career that lasted less than a decade, Fred F. Sears cranked out more than fifty feature films (a more charitable description might not do justice to the man's almost superhuman prolificacy). Mission Over Korea (1953) falls squarely in the middle of Sears' varied curriculum vitae and was one of several combat films that allowed the Boston native to break free of Columbia's "B" western ghetto. Better remembered now as the director of such atomic age schlock as The Werewolf, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (both 1956) and The Giant Claw (1957), Sears had been enrolled in Boston College when the Great Depression drove him out into the streets in December of 1929. Landing on his feet as the stage manager for John Barrymore's touring company, Sears later taught at Southwestern University in Memphis, where he managed the Little Theatre and did double and triple duty as a director and actor. (Sears and his wife Judith Elliot were known locally as "the Lunts of Memphis," after the Broadway power couple of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne.) In Hollywood after his service during the Second World War, Sears worked as a bit player at Columbia, where a friendship with cowboy star Charles Starrett led to his first directing assignments and, later, a partnership with producer Sam Katzman. A chain smoking, hard drinking, high strung perfectionist (with one suicide attempt already behind him), Fred F. Sears died from the complications of a cerebral hemorrhage on November 30, 1957, at the age of 44.

Shot in early to mid February 1953, as the three year old conflict in Korea was winding down (at a final cost of more than 36,000 American lives), Mission Over Korea originated with a script cobbled together by Martin Goldsmith, Jesse Lasky, Jr. and Eugene Ling from a story by war correspondent turned Hollywood scribe Richard Tregaskis, author of Guadalcanal Diary. To imbue the production with novelty and timeliness, producer Robert Cohn (nephew of Columbia top dog Harry Cohn) obtained permission from the United States government to film near the Korean front, the so-called 38th Parallel. With permission granted, Cohn, Sears and studio cameramen William Whitley (who had shot A Yank in Korea [1951] and A Yank in Indo-China [1952] for Sam Katzman) and Emil Oster, Jr., logged 18,000 miles of travel between Hollywood, Japan and Korea. Sometimes dressing the actual locations to look more dramatic, the crew shot a purported 85,000 feet of film, while dodging artillery from the North Korean Army and fearing sneak attacks by Red guerillas. Back in the States, Sears ordered the construction of sets to match the locations he and his crew had photographed while the script was rewritten to accommodate the location footage and "happy" accidents that had been captured on film. Whether good or bad for business, Mission Over Korea's premiere coincided, for all intents and purposes, with the signing of the armistice agreement on July 27, 1953.

At 85 minutes long, Mission Over Korea was Fred Sears' first feature-length film (most of his previous programmers were under 80 minutes) and benefits immeasurably from an above average cast. Star John Hodiak had seen an upswing in his fortunes during World War Two; with many Hollywood leading men enlisting in the armed forces, the glowering, Pittsburgh-born actor (classified as unfit for combat due to high blood pressure) snagged some important starring roles. Sadly, Hodiak died prematurely, of coronary thrombosis, only two years after completing his work on Mission Over Korea. Later a writer-director and photographer of note and arguably more famous for his roster of starlet wives (Ursula Andress, Linda Evans, Bo Derek) than for his artistic achievements, John Derek appears in an ingnue role as a greenhorn soldier and that's Todd Karns from Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946) playing his doomed brother. Well cast in smaller roles are Rex Reason (on the cusp of his rebranding as a man of action for Universal-International), Harvey Lembeck (fresh from Stalag 17 [1953]), Dabbs Greer and Maureen O'Sullivan, seen here between Tarzan, the Ape Man (1932) and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986).

Seen (and heard) briefly in the film is Richard Bowers, a black Army NCO from Vauxhall, New Jersey. Bowers recorded the Japanese song ""Gomen-Nasai" ("Forgive Me") with the Columbia Tokyo Orchestra. As a single (paired with a reissue of Shizuko Kasagi's recording of "Tokyo Boogie Woogie"), the tune was heralded as "the new big hit" by Billboard in February 1953 before a subsequent version two months later became the first chart entry for rising star Harry Belafonte.

Producer: Robert Cohn
Director: Fred F. Sears
Screenplay: Martin Goldsmith, Jesse Lasky, Jr., Eugene Ling (writers); Richard Tregaskis (story)
Cinematography: Sam Leavitt
Art Direction: George Brooks
Film Editing: Henry Batista
Cast: John Hodiak (Capt. George P. Slocum), John Derek (Lt. Pete Barker), Audrey Totter (Kate), Maureen O'Sullivan (Nancy Slocum), Harvey Lembeck (Sgt. Maxie Steiner), Richard Erdman (Pvt. Swenson), Rex Reason (Maj. Jim Hacker), Richard Bowers (singing soldier).

by Richard Harland Smith

"The Passion of Fred F. Sears," Lost in the Fifties: Rediscovering Phantom Hollywood by Wheeler Winston Dixon
Billboard, February 21, 1953
Jet, February 26, 1953
Jet, October 29, 1954
Maureen O'Sullivan: No Average Jane by David A. Fury

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