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This is Korea

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Now that I finished my 2nd book manuscript in 3 months, I have time for a vacation. About 50 minutes in fact before I get to the 4000 things that must be done yesterday. So I spent it watching John Ford’s 1951 film This is Korea. This is the Korean War version of the World War II documentaries the military commissioned from leading film directions. While I don’t know if it quite matches the artistic glory of John Huston’s The Battle of San Pietro, This is Korea is probably the best war documentary Ford made.

Ford pushed this project hard, convincing the government to allow him to make it. And he had to put together the editing, narration, voice work, sound, and concept. But the real heroes here are the war photographers, filming this absolutely jaw-dropping footage. I can’t easily find a number of U.S. military photographers who died in the war, but no doubt the number was significantly above zero, especially given that these guys were right on the front lines. Amazing.

Now, Ford does slightly simplify Korean history for American audiences. The film starts with him painting a Korea at rustic peace before the evil commies arrived. I mean, sure, there’s those 40 years of brutal Japanese occupation, but hey, let’s not let history get in the way of a pat narrative. And Ford never was too much into subtle imagery or messaging in his feature films, never mind a documentary made to get Americans on the home front to sacrifice for the cause–give blood or send care packages at the very least. But he was pretty bloody convincing to me in doing that. His soldiers’ lives are brutal. Terribly cold weather, dug in enemies, hills, a lack of clear progress. Throughout it all, the soldiers are brave. Not heroic. But just regular guys doing a job and doing it well and dying at it.

Well worth a viewing.

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  • cpinva

    my father was one of those marines, though he got there after ford. he’s only ever talked about his experience there once, and that was to mention that, from the day he disembarked off the troop ship, to the day he went home, the one thing that stuck in his mind was the smell. he said it smelled like shit, all over the country, regardless of the weather or topography. turns out it probably wasn’t his imagination. back in the 50’s, Korean farmers, especially rice farmers, were notorious for using raw sewage as fertilizer, giving their fields, paddies and the entire damn country a………pungent odor.

    • My father-in-law was a Marine. According to my husband he only spoke about once and all he said was “I got shot at some.”

      Which is a whatever statement if you don’t know he took part in a little shindig called the Inchon Landing.

    • My father was there in 1963 and he said the same thing about the, ahem, fertilizer.

  • Gwen

    In 1951, South Korea looked a lot like North Korea in 2014.

    • cpinva

      it was probably the last time you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between the two countries.

    • malindrome

      In 1951, South Korea’s top exports were rice and human hair (for wigs). In 1951, South Korea ranked slightly lower than Nigeria in GNP. In 1951, South Korea was all kinds of messed up from a year of terribly destructive warfare and four decades of incredibly rapacious colonialism. So it’s kind of a miracle that South Korea is in as good a shape in 2014 as it is.

      • J. Otto Pohl

        Not really a miracle. It is a combination of domestic policies aimed at development starting under Park Chung Hee who ruled the ROK from 1961 to 1979 and US policies of allowing Korean goods access to the US market. Before Park not only was South Korea poor, but one of the reasons it was poor was bad government economic policies under Syngman Rhee from 1948 to 1960. The developmentalist strategy of Park served in part to legitmize his regime. Unlike Rhee who had strong nationalist credentials in opposing the Japanese, Park had served in the Japanese military as an officer during WWII. While Rhee was in power, however, North Korea had a higher per capita income than South Korea and was considerably more industrialized.

  • Matt

    I only “skimmed” it (must.write.notes.for.tomorrow’s.classes…) but was 1) surprised to see the predominance of Corsairs among the planes. I knew they were used, but it was a surprise to see them that often in the film. 2) was surprised to see the predominance of “fire” warfare- napalm, flame throwers, etc. I know that lots and lots of civilians died from incendiary bombs, but was still surprised to see the use of napalm and flame throwers played up.

    • cpinva

      corsairs were used primarily as close air support. oddly enough, it turns out that a slower flying plane is much more effective, in providing close air support, against personnel. those corsairs were still armed with machine guns in the wings, and could carry napalm/anti-personnel bombs on its belly, very effect for taking out lots of enemy soldiers attacking your guys, on relatively open ground. jets were primarily establishing air supremacy, against Migs, and could also use rockets against enemy artillery, tanks and APC’s. I remember being surprised by that as well, the first time I saw a Korean war premised movie, but there you are.

      fire has been used in warfare since before alexander: it scares the shit out of your enemy, and gives you a much more cost-effective means of taking lots of their soldiers out of the fight, either by killing/wounding them, or sending them running backwards, to escape it. only the technology of delivery methods has improved, fire is still fire. I think “greek fire” was the direct ancestor of napalm.

  • Keaaukane

    I don’t understand why you say brave but not heroic. To me, the stand of the Gloucestershire regiment at the Battle of Imjin River is pretty fucking heroic. And the US retreat from the Chosan Reservoir was damned heroic, even if they were there only because of MacArthur’s stupidity. (Why wasn’t that SOB put against the pock marked wall and shot after letting his air force get caught on the ground in 1941? Would have saved a lot of grief later.)

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      i think Erik means that’s the tone Ford chose to set for the movie

    • Largely because I think “hero” is a meaningless word.

      • timb

        especially in reference to a hundred thousand people. Some of whom were cowards, some who did their jobs, and some who were exceptionally brave.

    • cpinva

      “(Why wasn’t that SOB put against the pock marked wall and shot after letting his air force get caught on the ground in 1941? Would have saved a lot of grief later.)”

      there were certainly a lot of soldiers and marines, during wwII and korea, who would have gladly been a part of that firing squad. macarthur was derisively known as “Dugout Doug”, by the troops having the misfortune to serve under him. he was certainly no simon bolivar buckner.

      • witlesschum

        There was a song to the tune of The Battle Hymn of the Republic that went something like “And Dugout Doug MacCarthur lies a hidin’ on the Rock…” that I remember hearing in some sort of World War II thing or maybe just hearing about. He had some sort of mind control over Washington, I guess.

        He really did fuck up bad in 1941. I mean, they’re sending out war warnings and while it was one thing for the commanders in Hawai’i to assume the Japanese wouldn’t or couldn’t really attack there, the assumption of the war plans at the time was that Japan would attack the Philippines. Who the hell doesn’t get ready for the thing that you expect to happen?

        Anyone know a good book that discusses this well?

  • My dad was a MASH surgeon in Korea. He didn’t talk about it much, but I know it was pretty discouraging after his tour in WW II (they drafted him again for Korea). He came home and became a Quaker and a pediatrician — quite a statement, really.

  • j_kay

    Dugout Dooug had the gift of SEEMING smart. Like Hitler or Larry Summers today.

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