Cast & Crew
James Warner Bellah
Filmed by combat cameramen, this documentary chronicles a year in the lives of the men of the United States 7th Fleet and 1st Marine Division, who are fighting in Korea. After scenes depicting a peaceful, rural Korea, which the narrator suggests existed until the invasion of the "ruthless red hand of Communism," villagers are shown watching the Americans "advance in a different direction." Throughout the film, the viewer is reminded of the grief and hardships of the native South Koreans, especially the children and old people. By December 1950, the tired and hungry Americans celebrate Christmas at a rest camp, eat their first hot meal in several months and receive mail and packages from the United States, while several are decorated with the Silver Star for gallantry in action. The narrator then describes how these young men landed at Inchon, Korea, several months before and took the city of Seoul from the North Koreans. The cameras follow the men as they advance over rubble roads, and hill after hill, with their many weapons of war: tanks, anti-tank guns, machine guns, mortars, bazookas and recoilless rifles. Supporting the footmen are Navy and Marine airmen, who drop napalm bombs and strafe the enemy. Wounded men are loaded into ambulances and taken to cleaning stations, and from there, flown by helicopter to hospital ships. Medical attention, such as immunization shots, is also provided for the many refugees. Orphaned Korean children, who are rescued from the sites of battles, are delivered to the care of Korean nuns. Soldiers who share candy and chewing gum with the young children must first teach them how to eat it. As winter develops, the men move north, over rivers, rice paddies and more mountains. Near a power plant on the Chosin reservoir, the front line is delineated for the airplane pilots by marking the backs of fighters in orange. North Korean prisoners are taken, searched and interrogated, and their weapons smashed. Likening the conditions to Valley Forge, the narrator describes how in blizzard conditions, ten enemy divisions box in the soldiers, who are short of supplies. In Tokyo, top military officials report the critical situation to their superiors at Pearl Harbor, and a decision is made to provide several fleets of Naval air support. The battleship, U.S.S. Missouri , nicknamed the "Mighty Mo," is dispatched. Back at the reservoir, soldiers battle their wounds and frostbite, and the many casualties are taken away by plane. When the "heartbreaking orders" come to burn everything that they cannot take and leave, the soldiers carry away their dead in retreat, while 1st Marine air pilots bomb the enemy. Meanwhile, the Mighty Mo pounds the beach with cannon fire. Carrying out a new strategy, the men again move forward on foot, this time preceded by napalm bombs dropped by their air allies, while the artillery shoots down any lone survivors. To answer the question, "What's it all about?" the narrator suggests that the soldiers would say that pride in the corps and their duty is the reason for carrying out this mission. After the narrator comments that the fight in Korea will ensure "that the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness shall not perish from this earth," he urges the viewer to remember those who are still in battle and those who have died.
This is Korea
Opening literally with a bang, as American soldiers witness a fiery explosion, This Is Korea! begins by painting a portrait of the lifestyle and traditions of the country, before, "the ruthless red hand of Communism reached out to snatch it."
From there, the film does not attempt to craft much of a narrative, but simply observes the milieu in which the Army and Marines were fighting: standing in lines at a latrine, giving candy to children, having their wounds treated. The film's tone is generally neutral and observational, but there are moments when Ford poeticizes the depiction of the troops. A sucker for sentimental music, Ford underscores a Christmas scene with "O Little Town of Bethlehem," while the G.I.'s enjoy "their first hot meal in two months."
There is little actual combat photography in This Is Korea!. The American military was fighting a stealthy opponent that kept itself out of view of cameras and guns. Ford voiced his own regret that, "we couldn't photograph the charges of the Chinese at night."
The film occasionally resorts to crude propaganda, but only in the narration, making one wonder if the film was too neutral for the U.S. Navy (or for Republic Pictures) and a post-production effort was made to make it more gung-ho, with references to the "red scourge." When footage is shown of entrenched Chinese soldiers being besieged by American flame throwers, the narrator snarls, "Fry 'em out! Burn 'em out! Cook 'em!"
Although no one is credited in the film, contemporary sources report that the narration was read by actors John Ireland, Irving Pichel, and George O'Brien.
When the American encampment is blanketed in snow, and the soldiers must struggle to stay warm, the narrator intones, "You remember Valley Forge? Well look at it again." Ford is waxing patriotic, for sure, but he is also subtly acknowledging the shabby conditions under which the soldiers are forced to live. This Is Korea! is weighted with scenes that have a similar mournful tone, as if Ford is already acknowledging the country's defeat. We see soldiers withdrawing from their positions as the Chinese army pushes closer ("Not retreating," the narrator says, with clear irony, "but advancing in a different direction.").
In one of the film's most haunting scenes, fire is set to the American encampment as the troops are ordered to retreat further. "Burn everything, and bug out."
This Is Korea! doesn't shy away from depicting the sacrifices being made by American soldiers. It concludes with shots of a hillside covered with the graves of dead soldiers -- "Remember us," a voice whispers. This shot is grimly linked to a shot of Americans marching off to battle -- "And remember us," a soldier's voice says.
This Is Korea! is noteworthy for the way in which it reflects a change in mood at the dawn of the Cold War. On one hand, it flaunts the kind of "give 'em hell" attitude that typified the flag-waving films of the 1940s (Huston's cynical films being notably excepted). At the same time, the film reveals a sense of mounting discouragement beneath the hard-boiled exterior. When director/writer Peter Bogdanovich asked Ford about the "grim" tone of the documentary, Ford replied, "Well, that's the way it was...There was nothing glorious about it. It was not the last of the chivalrous wars."
In his exhaustive analysis of the director's canon, John Ford: The Man and His Films, Tag Gallagher calls This Is Korea!, "a definitive memento of the uncertain hope that America could make things all right in the world."
"Thus he is not concerned with detailing strategy, movements, dates, or statistics; merely the soldiers' worm's-eye-view. Nor for Ford the journalist's heady assumption to report truth, or both sides, of a war; more relevant to capture the spirit of his own side...For Ford, the consequential mythology of the Korean War lay not in judicious debate over its wisdom, but in our dominant ideology, as represented in the attitudes of those defending the Pax Americana."
Ford himself would not have disagreed (though he probably would have snorted at Gallagher's verbose way of saying it). He described the film as, "simply a narrative glorifying American fighting men on land, sea, and air."
"As to the object of the picture," Ford wrote to Naval chief of information R.F. Hickey, "I repeat again there is no policy, politics or controversy of any sort involved."
Compared to the outpouring of Signal Corps films made during World War II, the Korean War did not get a lot of propaganda exposure. But then again, the latter war suffered a considerable image problem in the eyes of the general public.
In New York, This Is Korea! opened at the Loew's State Theatre on a double bill with Joseph Pevney's boxing picture Iron Man (1951, a remake of a 1931 Tod Browning film of the same title). The New York Times deemed This Is Korea!, "well worth the price of admission... In some forty minutes, impact beyond words is given to the intrepid work of the First Marine Division and the Seventh Fleet... The scenes of the sound and fury of bitter strife -- against a tough and entrenched foe -- are as clear as the dead, wounded, and dog-tired 'gyrenes' who keep struggling for 'hill after hill' from Inchon onward."
"Although it has been photographed in Trucolor, This Is Korea! is not pretty," wrote The Times. One assumes the critic is referring to the desolate surroundings of the military action, but it should be noted that Trucolor tended to be pasty and lacking in detail, but since it was Republic's in-house process, it was chosen over Technicolor (which would have been far too cumbersome and expensive) or the more portable 16mm Kodachrome (which had been used to shoot The Battle of Midway).
Motion Picture Herald found This Is Korea!, "the best piece of war reporting since the end of World War II. It has captured on film some of the flavor and the feeling for which the late Ernie Pyle was justly famed." Pyle was a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter during the war, and the creator of The Story of G.I. Joe.
In spite of critical praise for the film, McBride reports that Republic had difficulty interesting exhibitors in screening the film. "Most of the American public preferred to avert its eyes from the horrific reality of this increasingly unpopular war. Exhibitors reported that women were walking out of the picture because it was too gruesome and that parents who had sons in Korea did not want to see what was happening there."
When one exhibitor, Herman Rosen, wrote to Republic that it was his patriotic duty to show the film at his screen in Pearl Harbor, "Ford wrote Rosen a heartfelt letter of thanks, expressing the wish that there were twenty more people like him in the country."
According to Daily Variety, proceeds from the film were donated to the Navy Relief.
When Ford departed for Korea, he was a captain. After his return, he was promoted (on May 1, 1951) to rear admiral, at which point he retired from active service. The bump in rank was facilitated by his receipt of an Air Medal for meritorious achievement for his work in Korea.
Though he was officially retired from active duty, Ford continued to make films in the service of the U.S. military. In 1957, he crafted a poignant memorial film in honor of Capt. Howard W. Gilmore (The Growler Story), and in the late 1960s, directed Chesty: A Tribute to a Legend (televised in 1976), a documentary on Lt. General Lewis Puller, whom Ford idolized and who appears briefly in This Is Korea!.
Director: John Ford
Screenplay: James Warner Bellah
Cinematography: Charles Bohuy and Robert Rhea
Music: Victor Young
by Bret Wood
This is Korea
The opening onscreen credits read as follows: "The United States Navy presents This Is Korea!, the Story of the 7th Fleet and the 1st Marine Division, filmed by the United States Navy and United States Marine Corps photographers." Following a brief list of credits, an acknowledgment appears, thanking the "comrades of the Eighth Army and the United States Air Force." This Is Korea! is presented in montage style, with voice-over narration throughout the film. John Ford's onscreen credit reads, "Supervised by Rear Admiral John Ford U.S.N.R.(Ret.)." According to the Daily Variety review, the original 16mm combat footage was blown up to 35mm three-color Trucolor. Several military leaders are shown, including Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Gen. Lewis B. "Chesty" Puller, who later became the subject of director Ford's last completed project, the made-for-television documentary, Chesty: A Tribute to a Legend (1976).
According to the Daily Variety review, proceeds from the film were given to the Navy Relief. A modern source adds George O'Brien as a narrator, Frank Nugent as a writer and Charles Bohuy, Bob Rhea and Mark Armistead as photographers. Although onscreen credits suggest that the Navy produced the film, a modern source says that the film was financed by Republic Pictures. Some modern sources comment that This Is Korea! differs from Ford's earlier war documentaries because it downplays propaganda and rarely shows the enemy.