What your view of sports and life would be if you had too many concussions
If you have cable in America, July 4th is a day for wall-to-wall war movies. Your TV features many every Independence Day, but if you’re me, your DVR and DVD collection is already rife with them. Not only do I watch a lot of old movies, I have my own hoard of them both and on disc and various recording devices scattered about the J-Dub abode. But I’m not here to go all AMC on you; I’m not going to give you “Saving Private Ryan” on a 24-hour loop.
Normally on Independence Day, I do my own war movie marathon. I get a refrigerator full of beverages, plenty of snacks, and usually some big chunk of some sort of dead animal in my slow-cooker, and make a full day of it. The trick is I’m more prone to indulge films with which you might not be that familiar. Film buffs might not agree; these films aren’t necessarily “obscure,” but for the most part they aren’t the ones most movies channels loop around your neck on Memorial Day.
So, grab your own libations and epicurean delights and come along while I take you on a magical mystery tour* of what the Dubsism Independence Day Movie Marathon looked like on the J-Dub home theater system.
*Unlike the Dacotah Hotel in Manhattan, no Beatles were killed in the making of this blog.
If you save the best for last, then it would make sense to get the worst of the way first. I’ll admit AMC loves to kill you with this movie on Memorial Day, Independence Day, Veteran’s Day, and at least five other times a year. But it’s worth it because like a dog which is so ugly it’s cute, this movie is so bad it’s good.
Watching this movie is like what heroin addicts call “chasing the dragon.” You keep hoping it will be better than it is, and even though you know better, you just can’t help but tie off your main-line and take another hopeful poke.
This movie shouldn’t be terrible. Just from the cast alone it should be amazing, but it suffers from the same “giant cast” problem that drags down “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” A comedy with almost all the great comedians of the time should be hilarious, but it’s like having a football team of all quarterbacks. Somebody’s got to take the pie, they can’t all be throwers. “Midway” just doesn’t offer enough star-caliber moment for a cast including the aforementioned Heston, and Fonda, plus heavy-hitters like James Coburn, Glenn Ford, Hal Holbrook, Robert Mitchum, Cliff Robertson, and Robert Wagner. It’s also a “Who’s Who” of character actors of the 1970’s such as Robert Webber, Ed Nelson, Monte Markham, Kevin Dobson, Glenn Corbett, Dabney Coleman, Edward (Eddie’s son) Albert, and more. There’s even a pre-“CHiPS” Erik Estrada and a mustache-less Tom Selleck long before anybody knew who they were.
The fun doesn’t stop there. This movie also features basically ever Japanese actor who appeared in anything made in America in the previous decade. You’ve got “Mr. Miyagi,” “Sam” from “Quincy,” and every Japanese guy they passed off as Korean on “MASH.” The notable exceptions are George Takei and Mako. And if you blink at the wrong time, you’ll miss a ten-second cameo from ex-Miami Dolphin and “American Gladiators” host Larry Csonka.
That’s what keeps me coming back to this movie. It’s really yet another big-budget, larger-than-life, completely over-the-fucking-top Charlton Heston cheese-fest, and I’m a full-on, three-licks-and-a-bite Tootsie Pop sucker for those. “Midway” is two parts “Earthquake,” one part “Planet of the Apes,” with a dash of “Airport 1975” thrown in for flavor. Top it off with an amazing score by John Williams, and there goes the first 2:12 of the Marathon.
2) Pork Chop Hill
This is another movie full of familiar faces throughout the cast. If you don’t recognize names like Rip Torn, George Peppard, Woody Strode, Norman Fell, Robert Blake, Charles Aidman, Martin Landau, Kevin Hagen, and Gavin MacLeod, just head over to IMDB.com and get ready to spent a few minutes saying “Oh, THAT guy…”
But unlike “Midway,” there is absolutely nothing cheesy about “Pork Chop Hill.” Twenty years ago when “Saving Private Ryan” was released, a lot of people credited Steven Spielberg for bring a new level of “realism” or “new” insights on the war movie genre. That was said by people who had never seen “Pork Chop Hill.”
This movie is based on a book by military historian General. S. L. A. “Slam” Marshall. The setting is the closing days of the Korean War in 1953. Gregory Peck plays Lt. Joe Clemons who commands an infantry platoon at the front. As the negotiations between the combatants are winding down, each side is engaging in land-grabbing operations before a case-fire might set the front as a permanent boundary.
As such, Clemons is ordered to take a piece of territory known as Pork Chop Hill. It’s only value is in the advantage of having the high ground; the Chinese and North Koreans understand that and are not willing to let go of it. What should have been a minor night operation quickly blossoms into a full-fledged battle. It quickly becomes clear to Clemons during a Chinese artillery barrage that he and his men are not going to get the support they were promised.
From that point, the film becomes an exercise in survival balanced with the sense of duty; Clemons and his platoon remain determined to take a quasi-worthless chunk of rock even though they’re continually losing men.
3) The Bridges at Toko-Ri
This is another film set during the Korean War, and another that is a predecessor to the realism of “Saving Private Ryan.” The movie achieves this by telling an uncomfortably true story in a backdrop where the technical details are uncannily accurate. That is borne out in some generally unknown facts about this film.
The first is that it is based on a real incident, the “Battle of Carlson’s Canyon” which was waged early in the Korean War in an attempt to interdict North Korean supplies on their way to the front. William Holden plays the lead in Lieutenant Harry Brubaker, a naval aviator and World War II veteran who is called back to service when the Korean War erupts in 1950. Naturally, the first point of the humanist story is illustrating Brubaker return to active duty rips him from his wife (played by the uber-hot Grace Kelly), his two young children, and his successful law practice. If you don’t get the concept of the sacrifices inherent in military service from the idea of trading sharing a bed with Grace Kelly to racking on an aircraft carrier in the frigid gray-scape of the Sea of Japan, you’re either blind, a homosexual, or brain-damaged. Shit, even most gay guys I know can appreciate the sheer aesthetic quality of Grace Kelly…
In any event, the story gets put into gear when Brubaker’s plane has to ditch in the barely-above-freezing sea just short of the carrier. He survives, thanks to Mickey Rooney’s character Mike Forney; a pugnacious Irish helicopter pilot who fishes Brubaker out of the drink. Brubaker’s survival only gives him pause to bitterly question the fairness of what he has been asked to do, while everyone back home is able to go on with the routine of their lives as if the Korean War wasn’t even happening.
At this point, Brubaker’s commander, Rear Admiral George Tarrant (played by Fredric March) tells him it’s all about “distance;” Tarrant says “We do this because we’re here; back home they’re only doing just as you would be doing if you were there.” Tarrant takes a keen interest in Brubaker as he looks upon the young aviator as the son he lost to this war. That becomes clearer as the picture evolves and leads to Tarrant’s soliloquy at the end of the film about “Where do we get such men?’
After Brubaker gets rescued at sea, the focus of the picture returns to the bridges that span the canyons at Toko-Ri. The closer we get to the mission to take out those bridges, it becomes more clear this very possibly is a suicide mission, but there is a belief knocking out these bridges could bring about a turning point in the war, hence the importance. On that mission, Brubaker’s jet incurs damage sufficient enough to force him to make a crash-landing in North Korea. Mike Forney comes to the rescue in his chopper, but a North Korean machine gun disables his whirly-bird. Forney and Brubaker ultimately die in a muddy ditch in North Korea.
Downer ending aside, let’s go back to the accuracy of this film. It’s a great look at carrier aviation in the last days of the “straight-deck” era with hydraulic catapults and a paddle-waving landing deck officer (Robert Strauss’ “Beer Barrel” character). That all disappeared after Korea in carrier-based aviation with the introduction of the angled flight deck, the piston-driven steam catapult, and the Fresnel lens-mirror optical guidance system.
The last bit of trivia about this film…VF-172, the squadron depicted in the film is supposed to be equipped with the McDonnell F2H Banshee, but is shown throughout the film operating the Grumman F9F Panther. One of the pilots used for the flight sequences in this film was a young Lt. j.g. named Alan Shepherd, the same who later was one of the Mercury and Apollo astronauts.
4) Fighter Squadron
This is a lesser known film, but it is a classic example of what I call “boilerplate American Post-War Cinema.” That means this movie is co cheesy it should come with wine and crackers. Call it what you will, but I’m a sucker for that stuff because I grew up on the afternoon movie/movie for a rained-out ballgame.
Set on a U.S. Army Air Corps base in England in 1943, this movie has everything required of the “cheesy war movie” genre.
First it has all the needed characters. It has the conniving, womanizing con-man who offers the comic relief in Sergeant Dolan, played by Tom D’Andrea. It has the stodgy, number-crunching commander in General M. Gilbert, played by Shepperd Strudwick. And no war movie would be complete without the main character who is a maverick until he is saddled with the burden of command brought to you in this case by Edmund O’Brien’s character Colonel Ed Hardin.
It has the needed layers of conflict. Obviously, it’s World War II, so you have the Americans versus the Germans. But you also have the internal conflict between Hardin the maverick and Gilbert the rule-stickler. But best of all, you have Hardin the maverick against Hardin the commander, a conflict made possible by Hardin promotion, after which to everyone’s surprise, Hardin strictly enforces the rules.
This includes a dictate about forbidding pilots to marry. Hardin keeps the ban in place which creates a problem with his friend and wing-man Captain Stu Hamilton played by Robert Stack. As a result, Hamilton defiantly marries his girlfriend and returns hoping to persuade Hardin to overlook his transgression. Hardin refuses to let him back into the squadron, but does weaken enough to let him fly one last mission. Predictably, Hamilton gets shot down and admits to Hardin over the radio that he was distracted by thoughts of his wife.
The film ends on an ironic twist in which Hardin begs for the chance to finish his tour after being transferred to a staff job. Just like his friend Hamilton, he gets shot down, but we never get to know Hardin’s ultimate fate.
One last tidbit: keep your eyes peeled for an unaccredited Rock Hudson as one of the pilots.
5) The Steel Helmet
Three out of five movies in today’s marathon take place during the Korean War, but this is the only one by Samuel Fuller. If you aren’t familiar with Fuller’s work, get familiar; he’s really the first independent filmmaker.
A hallmark of Fuller movies is they are brash, raw, and go where most people lack the guts to go. “The Steel Helmet” is a center-cut example. As you read this, remember this movie was made in 1951 while the Korean War is in it midst, and most Americans are still punch-drunk from World War II. That means the average movie-goer in that time 1951 wants more “boilerplate American Post-War Cinema” like “Fighter Squadron” and certainly aren’t ready for a super-raw dose of reality…which is EXACTLY what “The Steel Helmet” is.
The story starts with an American infantry unit surrounded by the North Koreans and left with no choice by to surrender. As they were wont to do throughout the war, the North Koreans bind the hands of the prisoners of war and execute them. The Gene Evans character “Sergeant Zack” is the only one who survives the massacre when the bullet meant for him is deflected by his steel helmet. He escapes with the help of a a South Korean orphan nicknamed “Short Round.”
“Short Round” bring you the first hint this movie is going to “get real” when he demands that Zack refer to him as South Korean, not a “gook.” Thus begins a literal journey for survival, and a not-so-subtly figurative one through racism. By the way, that’s why this this movie should be required viewing for all these “millenial” assholes who cry racism about everything but don’t know a goddamn thing about it.
Fuller picks the recently desegregated U.S. Army as his vehicle for this journey, and he does it masterfully. As Zack and Short Round make their trek, they come across Corporal Thompson, a black medic and also the sole survivor of his unit. Later , the three of them encounter a patrol led by inexperienced Lieutenant Driscoll. The trouble begins when the white soldiers in Driscoll’s patrol insist Thompson isn’t a survivor, rather a deserter. As the racial tensions are rising, a situation arises which demands unity in order for survival when they are all pinned down by snipers.
This scenes makes it evident that Fuller’s casting of Zack, Short Round and Driscoll’s patrol was intended to be more than just be broadly representative of the Korean War-era US Army. You have to remember the Army which fought the Korean war was one quickly cobbled together of civilian reservists and National Guard units as America dismantled in military might after World War II with the mistaken belief that nuclear weapons meant there weren’t going to any more “conventional” land wars. Add to that the desegregation of the military in 1948, and Fuller has a free reign to use massive stereotyping of his characters to dramatize his message.
The denouement of the film comes upon reaching a deserted temple, where they encounter a North Korean major hiding there who kills a member of Driscoll’s patrol before he is captured. After being captured, the North Korean tires to drive a wedge between the Black and Asian soldiers by pointing out the racism they face in 1950s America. At this point, Zack decides he’s going to turn the North Korean officer into headquarters, and Lieutenant Driscoll asks him to exchange helmets for luck, but Zack refuses.
The late-act twist comes in the form of another sniper attack in which Short Round is killed. The North Korean major then mocks a prayer written to Buddha by Shout Round to have Zack like him, after which Zack shoots the North Korean in cold blood.
The final battle sequence finds the Americans under a withering artillery attack on the temple; a barrage which only Zack, Thompson, and two others survive. As they leave the temple after the battle, Zack goes to Driscoll’s grave and exchanges his helmet with the Lieutenant’s.