When it comes to war movies, and American ones specifically, the Korean War (1950-’53) remains “the forgotten war.” Just try to name five memorable films about the conflict (never officially declared a war) off the top of your head. I suspect you’ll validate the sad truth. On the other hand, if asked to name five major films about World War I, WWII or the Vietnam War (also a conflict), I suspect true cinephiles wouldn’t hesitate too long.
It’s not really a matter of numbers, in casualties or film productions. Vietnam cost 58,000 American lives; the much-shorter Korean conflict toted up 33,000. American films dealing with Korea add up to about 47; for Vietnam, the number is almost double.
Of those 47 movies, some of the best are two by Samuel Fuller (Fixed Bayonets, The Steel Helmet); Pork Chop Hill directed by the great Lewis Milestone, Oscar-winner for All Quiet on the Western Front; and The Bridges at Toko-Ri, with William Holden and Grace Kelly. John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate and Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H (based on Richard Hooker’s novel) aren’t really war movies in the traditional sense, but still classics. Just the dialog in M*A*S*H (“Goddamn army”) and its blatant depiction of marijuana use among the troops make it a standout.
In a category all by itself, however, is one of the most forgotten films about “the forgotten War.” Just restored to its original 3D aspect and out on DVD and Blu-ray, Cease Fire! (1953) was filmed entirely in South Korea as the conflict wound down, the interminable peace talks at Panmunjon dragging on as soldiers continued to die.
Most cast members are non-actors, actual G.I.s pulled off the lines to play their fictional counterparts. Rather than special effects and staged explosions, the gunfire and ordnance were the real thing—authenticity was both the goal and the medium.
Owen Crump, who’d written and produced several documentaries for the military during WWII, sold the idea for Cease Fire! to powerhouse producer Hal Wallis who, with movies like Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, Yankee Doodle Dandy and The Adventures of Robin Hood to his credit, was a venerable star-maker. The U.S. Department of Defense—eager to sell what was a confusing, unpopular conflict to the American public—offered its full support.
Walter Doniger (“Tokyo Joe”) was brought in to fashion a script from Crump’s original concept. The story is of a squad of 14 men selected to hoof it to “Red Top Hill” (based on the infamous Pork Chop Hill, where 104 soldiers died) in order to verify the rumored approach of a Chinese unit. Included prominently in the squad are an African American and a Korean scout, their presence meant to show the “New Army” that President Harry Truman had ordered to end racial discrimination in the U.S. military.
The soldiers are listed as cast members; their fictional characters bear their real-life names. One of them, Pfc. Carrasco, is ‘killed’ toward the film’s end. Tragically and ironically, after filming was complete, Ricardo Carrasco (one of the best non-actors in the movie) returned to his unit and was killed in the second battle of Pork Chop Hill, along with 242 other Americans.
The soldiers in the movie were the real thing, but none was a professional actor—and it shows. Their voices were later dubbed in, but the performances are wooden. The efforts of the filmmakers to sound authentic (the film certainly looks authentic) were further impeded by the MPAA Production Code Administration, which stupidly demanded some of the offensive language (three hells and one damn) be amended to receive its Seal of Approval. As a consequence, the real-life soldiers playing movie soldiers use “darn” and “dang,” which must have amused the hell out of audiences, particularly veterans.
The film’s ending focuses on a newborn Korean baby whose father, the squad’s scout, is killed as his wife gives birth. The filmmakers’ intent about the worth and value of the bloody struggle is heartfelt and obvious. Given the tensions in Korea today, those sentiments seem incredibly apt and bitterly ironic.
The merits and ambition of Cease Fire! more than outweigh its deficiencies. Thanks to the folks at 3-D Film Archive, Cease Fire! looks terrific. You can watch it in 2D, but 3D fanatics (like me) should see it the way it was filmed.
No longer relegated to the dustbin, Cease Fire! is a terrific life-lesson film.