FILM: PORK CHOP HILL (1959)

Synopsis

Pork Chop Hill is an American war film written by James R. Webb; produced by Sy Bartlett; directed by Lewis Milestone; and starring Gregory Peck, Rip Torn, and George Peppard. Based on the book by U.S. military historian Brigadier General S.L.A. Marshall, the film depicts the first Battle of Pork Chop Hill between the U.S. Army’s 7th Infantry Division and Chinese and North Korean forces in April 1953 in the final days of the Korean War.

Background

The so-called Battle of Pork Chop Hill actually comprises two related Korean War battles fought during the spring and summer of 1953 in the midst of cease-fire negotiations at Panmunjom that would end the war on 27 July—and make these costly engagements militarily pointless. Military analyst and historian, U.S. Army Brigadier General S.L.A. “Slam” Marshall depicted the first battle (16–18 April 1953) in his 1956 bestseller, Pork Chop Hill: The American Fighting Man in Action Korea, Spring 1953. Screenwriter James Webb brought Marshall’s book to the attention of Gregory Peck, who agreed to turn it into an anti-war film that would show war realistically, that is, in all its nerve-wracking carnage, waste, and futility. Peck purchased the screen rights from S.L.A. Marshall for a pittance: a lopsided deal that Marshall rued for the rest of his life. Peck then hired Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front) to direct the picture for Melville Productions, Peck’s new production company, formed with his friend, screenwriter Sy Bartlett (Twelve O’Clock High).

Production

A casting call yielded some 640 applicants for about 40 screen roles. Many of the young actors who won parts in the film went on to have distinguished film and/or TV careers (e.g., Rip Torn, Woody Strode, Harry Guardino, George Peppard, Norman Fell, Robert Blake, Martin Landau, James Edwards, Gavin McLeod, Harry Dean Stanton, Bert Remsen, and Clarence Williams III). Under the supervision of production designer Nicolai Remisoff and set decorator Edward G. Boyle, crews turned a 300-foot outcropping at Albertson Ranch, Thousand Oaks, California (10 miles north of Malibu), into a realistic facsimile of Pork Chop Hill, with trenches, bunkers, and concertina wire. Track was laid down to accommodate a rolling camera platform for tracking and following shots by cinematographer Sam Leavitt—an arrangement similar to the one that Lewis Milestone had deployed in All Quiet on the Western Front 28 years earlier. The filmmakers also benefited from the support of the Pentagon, which lent them the services of Joseph Clemons, Jr. himself as technical advisor (Fishgall, 2002, pp. 205–208). Budget-conscious Peck had insisted that the picture come in at $1.3 million. Casting unknowns and shooting in black and white near Los Angeles helped keep costs down, but what was supposed to be a 40-day shoot (26 May–18 July 1958) went 15 days over schedule. The film wrapped in early August, $450,000 over budget. Ironically, the actual battle lasted just two days and two nights. In post-production, Peck, Sy Bartlett, and James Webb took over the final editing and cut the film by nearly 20 minutes to make it tauter. An unhappy Lewis Milestone attributed the last-minute excisions to Gregory Peck’s wife, Veronique, who felt that her husband made his first entrance too late into the picture, an unconfirmed but plausible assertion.

Plot Summary

In a surprise attack on the night of 16 April 1953, near the end of the Korean War, a Chinese battalion overruns U.S. defensive positions on Pork Chop Hill: an exposed outpost that projects into Chinese lines. The Chinese quickly capture most of the hill except for a few isolated bunkers. King Company, 31st Infantry Regiment, commanded by Lt. Joseph Clemons, Jr. (Gregory Peck), is tasked with recapturing the hill, with two platoons of Love Company mounting a supporting attack on the right flank. Subjected to demoralizing propaganda via loudspeaker (spoken by Viraj Amonsin) and withering artillery, mortar, and automatic weapons fire, both units take extremely heavy casualties. Love Company’s advance is stymied, but King Company ultimately manages to capture most of the bunkers and trenches on the hill’s summit. Of the 197 men who began the assault on Pork Chop Hill, only 35 men from King Company and 12 men from the two platoons of Love Company make it up the hill unscathed. After further casualties Lt. Clemons has only 25 men left to hold the hill against impending Chinese counterattacks. George Company arrives to help but is mistakenly ordered down off the hill. All of Clemons’ men are exhausted, low on ammo, and under constant and heavy enemy fire. Clemons requests reinforcements to stave off annihilation but none are forthcoming. Unknown to him, the merits of holding Pork Chop Hill are being debated at every command level, from battalion, to Eighth Army headquarters, all the way up to the peace talks table at Panmunjom. Finally realizing that the Chinese had attacked Pork Chop Hill to test American resolve (not for its strategic value), the American negotiators at Panmunjom authorize 7th Infantry Division commanding officer, Major General Arthur Trudeau (Ken Lynch), to send in reinforcements for Clemons and his beleaguered men, who descend the hill as fresh troops climb it.

Reception

Released on 29 May 1959 (just before the Memorial Day weekend), Pork Chop Hill received no Oscar nominations but earned rave reviews for its gritty realism. For example, Bosley Crowther praised the filmmakers’ willingness to depict the “resentments and misgivings” of the American troops: “The readiness to incorporate these resentments in the account and demonstrate the application of this new brainwash technique [i.e., an enemy battlefield loudspeaker broadcasting psychological abuse to attacking U.S. infantrymen] are worthy of highest commendation in James R. Webb’s bone-bare script, which has been taken from S.L.A. Marshall’s factual account of the fighting for Pork Chop Hill. And the audacity of Sy Bartlett to produce such a grim and rugged film, which tacitly points the obsoleteness of ground warfare, merits applause” (Crowther, 1959). Good notices notwithstanding, Pork Chop Hill did lackluster business at the box office. A relentlessly grim picture about a bloody battle at the end of an unpopular war, the movie generated $1.7 million in ticket sales—just enough to recuperate its production costs, despite an 11-city pre-release promotional tour by Gregory Peck.

Reel History Versus Real History

In general terms Pork Chop Hill is a fairly accurate depiction of the actual battle, albeit somewhat simplified for narrative coherence. As depicted in the movie, American G.I. morale at the time of the Battle of Pork Chop Hill was low. The Chinese did use loudspeakers as a means of psychological warfare but not quite as depicted in the film; the Chinese often welcomed arriving units by name via their loudspeakers but did not broadcast a greeting to King Company as it moved up the hill, as the film shows. At any rate, ongoing peace talks and impending prisoner exchanges made it clear that the war would soon be over; no one was anxious to be the last combatant to die in an unpopular conflict about to end in stalemate. Gregory Peck’s rendition of Lt. Joseph Clemons is, however, more problematic. Lt. Clemons was 24 in 1953, whereas Peck was 42 in 1958 when he played Clemons—far too old to be playing a junior officer just two years out of West Point. In his book, S.L.A. Marshall characterized Lt. Clemons as still inexperienced and prone to confusion, a characterization that Lewis Milestone wanted to capture on film but Milestone was overridden by Gregory Peck. In keeping with his well-established star persona as an always righteous and invincible hero, Peck played Clemons as unshakably stalwart and decisive (Fishgall, 2002, p. 207). Despite the obvious age discrepancy and an idealized portrayal, the real Joe Clemons pronounced Pork Chop Hill “so realistic that it seems the battle itself is being refought before your very eyes” (Payne, 1959).

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