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One of the very first films about the Korean conflict, A Yank in Korea (1951) follows a familiar formula for military stories on screen, that of an arrogant hotshot who has to be taken down a peg before he can become an effective part of a combat unit. Lon McCallister plays Andy Smith, a World War II hero called back into service whose reckless bravado causes tensions in his unit until a tough, seasoned sergeant teaches him to be a team player. Andy finally proves himself in a climactic raid on an enemy ammunitions dump.
A Yank in Korea was directed by Lew Landers (who began his career under his birth name Louis Friedlander), a reliable B movie director, one of the most prolific in the industry; he was known to churn out as many as a dozen low-budget adventure stories, thrillers, and Westerns per year for just about every studio in Hollywood. Landers spent a great portion of his time working at Columbia, and it was there, in the mid-1940s, that he hooked up with producer Sam Katzman for the first of 14 pictures together.
At the time of A Yank in Korea's release, Katzman was a 50-year-old motion picture veteran and already something of a legend. In 1952, Time magazine ran an article about him, noting a remarkable track record of nearly 125 films over the course of 21 years, all of them moneymakers. (He would keep that record up for another 20-plus years and close to double that number of films.) It helped, of course, that Katzman never spent more than a half million dollars on a movie, but the real secret of his success was a combination of factors; he specialized in surefire blends of sex and adventure; efficiently operating five sound stages at an old subsidiary studio at Columbia that constantly buzzed with activity. He also had an unerring knack for jumping on a hot news topic or popular trend, slapping a catchy title on it, then writing a story around it using a well-trodden formula. The results were quickie programmers that reached the public with lightning speed, playing to audiences before the topic or trend had time to fade.
Such was the case with A Yank in Korea. According to Time, the movie had its genesis in a Columbia executive's wish for a Korean picture shortly after the conflict began. Katzman responded with the title off the top of his head, no doubt influenced by the World War II Fox hit A Yank in the RAF (1941), another military drama with an arrogant hotshot hero (Tyrone Power) at its center. Katzman had his war story done and ready for distribution in six weeks and two days.
The story, filmed under the working title "Rookie in Korea," was apparently inspired by a real-life event, or at least Katzman found in it a good way to market his film. A Yank in Korea opens with the following dedication written on screen: "Early in August, 1950, PFC John J. McCormick, of Collindale, PA, wrote a letter to his wife and two children. On August 10, 1950 PFC McCormick was killed in action. The text of the letter is destined to become an historic document. While no events in this film are intended to portray the life of PFC McCormick, the picture was inspired by his letter, and is respectfully dedicated to his memory."
Lon McCallister, only 27 when he starred in this film, was already nearing the end of his career. A popular adolescent actor of the 30s and 40s, McCallister graduated to bigger roles in such pictures as Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! (1948) and The Story of Seabiscuit (1949), in which his boyish looks and diminutive stature (5'6") served him well in the role of a jockey who wins the heart of a grown-up Shirley Temple. It has often been said that McCallister's enduring youthfulness and lack of height were responsible for fewer opportunities as he got older, but the same factors didn't hurt the career of Alan Ladd. Possibly, McCallister's sexuality played a key part as well. He was allegedly involved romantically with actor William Eythe, a relationship that reportedly incurred the wrath of 20th Century Fox head Darryl Zanuck and cost Eythe his contract with that studio. Whatever the reason, McCallister made only two more feature films and a few television appearances after A Yank in Korea. He did quite well for himself post-Hollywood, making a sizable fortune in real estate and investments, and died in 2005.
McCallister's wife in A Yank in Korea is played by Sunny Vickers, who only made four movies but whose private life kept her in the headlines for a few years. Around the time of this picture's release, Vickers was dating another former child star, Scotty Beckett. She became pregnant, and the two wed a few months later. Unlike McCallister, Beckett was never able to make a transition into a life beyond Hollywood, and he and Vickers slipped into a downward spiral of alcoholism, drugs, and run-ins with the law. She divorced him in 1957 shortly after checking into a rehab facility and died in 1968, not yet 40 years old.
Director: Lew Landers
Producer: Sam Katzman
Screenplay: William Sackheim, story by Leo Lieberman
Cinematography: William P. Whitley
Editing: Edwin H. Bryant
Art Direction: Paul Palmentola
Cast: Lon McCallister (Andy Smith), William "Bill" Phillips (Sgt. Kirby), Brett King (Milo Pagano), Larry Stewart (Sollie Kaplan), William Tannen (Lt. Lewis).
by Rob Nixon