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This Is Korea!

This Is Korea!(1951)

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This Is Korea! (1951)

Wartime propaganda shorts are fascinating footnotes to the careers of such legendary directors as Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. Director John Ford was a particularly active consultant for the U.S. Navy Signal Corps (which oversaw the production of propaganda films), supervising at least a half-dozen shorts, including The Battle of Midway (1942), December 7th (1943), and a forgotten gem called Sex Hygiene (1941, made for the U.S. Army). One of the more obscure titles in this already below-the-radar body of work is the 1951 featurette This Is Korea! (1951).This Is Korea! was made under the auspices of the U.S. Navy, but it was Ford who initiated the project and convinced Republic Pictures to give it a theatrical release. Once he obtained the support of the U.S.N. and Republic head Herbert Yates, Ford departed the U.S. on December 26, 1950 and arrived in Korea on January 1, 1951. His active service began on January 4, and continued through February 2. According to biographer Joseph McBride (Searching for John Ford), he traveled with "his naval aide and Hollywood colleague Mark Armistead and two Field Photo cameramen from World War II, Charles Bohuy and Robert Rhea." In addition to footage shot by Bohuy and Rhea, the documentary incorporates other Signal Corps footage shot by other crews.

Opening literally with a bang, as American soldiers witness a fiery explosion, This Is Korea! begins by painting a portrait of the lifestyle and traditions of the country, before, "the ruthless red hand of Communism reached out to snatch it."

From there, the film does not attempt to craft much of a narrative, but simply observes the milieu in which the Army and Marines were fighting: standing in lines at a latrine, giving candy to children, having their wounds treated. The film's tone is generally neutral and observational, but there are moments when Ford poeticizes the depiction of the troops. A sucker for sentimental music, Ford underscores a Christmas scene with "O Little Town of Bethlehem," while the G.I.'s enjoy "their first hot meal in two months."

There is little actual combat photography in This Is Korea!. The American military was fighting a stealthy opponent that kept itself out of view of cameras and guns. Ford voiced his own regret that, "we couldn't photograph the charges of the Chinese at night."

The film occasionally resorts to crude propaganda, but only in the narration, making one wonder if the film was too neutral for the U.S. Navy (or for Republic Pictures) and a post-production effort was made to make it more gung-ho, with references to the "red scourge." When footage is shown of entrenched Chinese soldiers being besieged by American flame throwers, the narrator snarls, "Fry 'em out! Burn 'em out! Cook 'em!"

Although no one is credited in the film, contemporary sources report that the narration was read by actors John Ireland, Irving Pichel, and George O'Brien.

When the American encampment is blanketed in snow, and the soldiers must struggle to stay warm, the narrator intones, "You remember Valley Forge? Well look at it again." Ford is waxing patriotic, for sure, but he is also subtly acknowledging the shabby conditions under which the soldiers are forced to live. This Is Korea! is weighted with scenes that have a similar mournful tone, as if Ford is already acknowledging the country's defeat. We see soldiers withdrawing from their positions as the Chinese army pushes closer ("Not retreating," the narrator says, with clear irony, "but advancing in a different direction.").

In one of the film's most haunting scenes, fire is set to the American encampment as the troops are ordered to retreat further. "Burn everything, and bug out."

This Is Korea! doesn't shy away from depicting the sacrifices being made by American soldiers. It concludes with shots of a hillside covered with the graves of dead soldiers -- "Remember us," a voice whispers. This shot is grimly linked to a shot of Americans marching off to battle -- "And remember us," a soldier's voice says.

This Is Korea! is noteworthy for the way in which it reflects a change in mood at the dawn of the Cold War. On one hand, it flaunts the kind of "give 'em hell" attitude that typified the flag-waving films of the 1940s (Huston's cynical films being notably excepted). At the same time, the film reveals a sense of mounting discouragement beneath the hard-boiled exterior. When director/writer Peter Bogdanovich asked Ford about the "grim" tone of the documentary, Ford replied, "Well, that's the way it was...There was nothing glorious about it. It was not the last of the chivalrous wars."

In his exhaustive analysis of the director's canon, John Ford: The Man and His Films, Tag Gallagher calls This Is Korea!, "a definitive memento of the uncertain hope that America could make things all right in the world."

"Thus he is not concerned with detailing strategy, movements, dates, or statistics; merely the soldiers' worm's-eye-view. Nor for Ford the journalist's heady assumption to report truth, or both sides, of a war; more relevant to capture the spirit of his own side...For Ford, the consequential mythology of the Korean War lay not in judicious debate over its wisdom, but in our dominant ideology, as represented in the attitudes of those defending the Pax Americana."

Ford himself would not have disagreed (though he probably would have snorted at Gallagher's verbose way of saying it). He described the film as, "simply a narrative glorifying American fighting men on land, sea, and air."

"As to the object of the picture," Ford wrote to Naval chief of information R.F. Hickey, "I repeat again there is no policy, politics or controversy of any sort involved."

Compared to the outpouring of Signal Corps films made during World War II, the Korean War did not get a lot of propaganda exposure. But then again, the latter war suffered a considerable image problem in the eyes of the general public.

In New York, This Is Korea! opened at the Loew's State Theatre on a double bill with Joseph Pevney's boxing picture Iron Man (1951, a remake of a 1931 Tod Browning film of the same title). The New York Times deemed This Is Korea!, "well worth the price of admission... In some forty minutes, impact beyond words is given to the intrepid work of the First Marine Division and the Seventh Fleet... The scenes of the sound and fury of bitter strife -- against a tough and entrenched foe -- are as clear as the dead, wounded, and dog-tired 'gyrenes' who keep struggling for 'hill after hill' from Inchon onward."

"Although it has been photographed in Trucolor, This Is Korea! is not pretty," wrote The Times. One assumes the critic is referring to the desolate surroundings of the military action, but it should be noted that Trucolor tended to be pasty and lacking in detail, but since it was Republic's in-house process, it was chosen over Technicolor (which would have been far too cumbersome and expensive) or the more portable 16mm Kodachrome (which had been used to shoot The Battle of Midway).

Motion Picture Herald found This Is Korea!, "the best piece of war reporting since the end of World War II. It has captured on film some of the flavor and the feeling for which the late Ernie Pyle was justly famed." Pyle was a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter during the war, and the creator of The Story of G.I. Joe.

In spite of critical praise for the film, McBride reports that Republic had difficulty interesting exhibitors in screening the film. "Most of the American public preferred to avert its eyes from the horrific reality of this increasingly unpopular war. Exhibitors reported that women were walking out of the picture because it was too gruesome and that parents who had sons in Korea did not want to see what was happening there."

When one exhibitor, Herman Rosen, wrote to Republic that it was his patriotic duty to show the film at his screen in Pearl Harbor, "Ford wrote Rosen a heartfelt letter of thanks, expressing the wish that there were twenty more people like him in the country."

According to Daily Variety, proceeds from the film were donated to the Navy Relief.

When Ford departed for Korea, he was a captain. After his return, he was promoted (on May 1, 1951) to rear admiral, at which point he retired from active service. The bump in rank was facilitated by his receipt of an Air Medal for meritorious achievement for his work in Korea.

Though he was officially retired from active duty, Ford continued to make films in the service of the U.S. military. In 1957, he crafted a poignant memorial film in honor of Capt. Howard W. Gilmore (The Growler Story), and in the late 1960s, directed Chesty: A Tribute to a Legend (televised in 1976), a documentary on Lt. General Lewis Puller, whom Ford idolized and who appears briefly in This Is Korea!.

Director: John Ford
Screenplay: James Warner Bellah
Cinematography: Charles Bohuy and Robert Rhea
Music: Victor Young

by Bret Wood

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