Hollywood has devoted massive resources to war movies about World War II and Vietnam but has never really given the same treatment to the experiences of the men and women who served in Korea.
Even with a short list of movies to choose from, a few definitely warrant the attention of war movie fans and people who want to get a (fictionalized) version of what happened during the conflict.
We have reason to hope that more stories will be told soon. There’s a new movie currently in production called “Devotion,” starring Glen Powell (“Top Gun: Maverick”) and Jonathan Majors (currently seen in “Loki” as He Who Remains). Based on the true story of the friendship between Navy aviators Jesse Brown and Tom Hudner, the movie chronicles their heroism during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir.
While we’re waiting for the new movie to hit theaters next year, here are eight movies about the Korean War that you should watch soon.
Gregory Peck took time off from his late-career roles as a Nazi (“Boys from Brazil”) and father of the Antichrist (“The Omen”) to play Gen. Douglas MacArthur in a movie that tracks his career from 1942 until President Harry Truman fires him for insubordination during the Korean War.
There are a few important things to note about “MacArthur,” which was rushed into production by Universal Pictures after the studio’s massive 1976 success with “Midway.” Most of it was shot on the studio’s backlot, and there was not a huge investment in getting the details right.
That said, this movie inspires fierce devotion from both fans of the general and fans of the actor who plays him. The production quality of “MacArthur” may pale when compared to 1970’s Oscar Best Picture winner “Patton,” but it’s a movie that at least tries to give MacArthur his due.
The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954)
“The Bridges at Toko-Ri” is probably the biggest prestige picture to feature the Korean War. Based on James Michener’s 1953 novel, the movie follows a crew of Navy aviators assigned to bomb bridges in North Korea.
William Holden stars as the World War II veteran called back into service. There’s some appropriately soapy family romance with his wife, Nancy, played by Grace Kelly. There’s heroism, sacrifice and a good bit of yelling about the meaning of heroism and sacrifice.
Michener was a war correspondent who covered similar missions during the war, back in the day when the Pentagon gave reporters access to the front lines. The U.S. Navy enthusiastically supported the film and helped give the movie exceptional air-battle scenes. Paramount Pictures even paid for location shoots in Japan to give the movie an appropriate look and feel.
If this was a World War II movie, it’d be a lot more famous and appear on a lot more best war-movie lists.
The Steel Helmet (1951)
Samuel Fuller’s classic is a lowest-of-the-low budget movie, but it’s also the first Hollywood movie made about the Korean War. Fuller dashed off the script in a week and shot the movie in L.A.'s Griffith Park with a cast of mostly unknowns.
A POW survives the North Korean execution of his unit when a bullet glances off his helmet. He's rescued by a Korean boy, and they join up with another unit on patrol. Fuller confronts the racial attitudes of the era head-on and offers a far grittier take on military life than he would have been allowed to offer on a studio picture with a big budget.
Pork Chop Hill (1959)
“Pork Chop Hill” was one of the very last movies directed by Lewis Milestone, who won an Oscar for directing the World War I classic and 1930 Best Picture “All Quiet on the Western Front.” This Korean War movie definitely isn’t as good as that classic, but it’s a gritty battle tale that features an excellent performance from Gregory Peck.
Based on a book by military historian Brig. Gen. S.L.A. Marshall, the movie covers the first battle of Pork Chop Hill between the U.S. Army’s 7th Infantry and the Chinese and North Korean armies. As all students of the war know, the Chinese didn’t believe that American forces had the will to hold such a strategically insignificant position and the fact that (spoiler!) American forces held is a big factor in the stalemate that eventually ended the conflict.
The movie is notable for featuring a whole slew of future movie and television stars, including the recently deceased Air Force veteran Gavin MacLeod and Army veteran Clarence Williams III. You’ll also see Robert Blake (“Baretta”), Norman Fell (“Three’s Company”), George Peppard (“The A-Team”), Martin Landau (“Mission: Impossible”), Harry Dean Stanton (“Repo Man”), Harry Guardino (“Dirty Harry”) and Woody Strode (“Spartacus”). It’s a cavalcade of stars.
Men in War (1957)
Robert Ryan and WWII Navy veteran Aldo Ray, two of the great tough-guy character actors in movie history, play the leaders of a unit desperately trying to rejoin their division after they’re cut off behind enemy lines. The story takes place over a single day in September 1950.
The Army wanted nothing to do with the picture, because it believed that the script portrayed soldiers without proper discipline, and everyone knows that something like that could not possibly exist, right?
The movie is based on a novel about the WWII Normandy invasion, but producers updated the story to cover the more recent conflict. They deserve points for that. What might be a forgotten, middle-of-the-pack WWII movie is now one of the highest-profile Korean War flicks.
The Hook (1963)
“The Hook” is one overheated drama starring U.S. Navy WWII veteran Kirk Douglas, maybe the only actor who can convince an audience to follow him into the depths of internal torment this story is trying to sell.
Douglas leads a unit of 8th Army soldiers who are aboard a merchant ship when they capture a downed North Korean pilot. Ordered to execute their prisoner, no one seems to have the guts to pull the trigger. While they’re dithering, word comes through that the armistice has been signed and the prisoner escapes.
If you’ve ever watched a war movie, you know this is not going to end well for someone. Douglas goes through a dark night of the soul before he’s faced with a life-or-death choice.
War Hunt (1962)
Another movie made on a shoestring budget, “War Hunt” is notable for being the first starring role for Robert Redford. He plays a private sent to the front lines in the closing days of the war who finds himself serving alongside a soldier (John Saxon, “Enter the Dragon”) who’s infiltrating enemy lines at night to perform a weird killing ritual that has nothing to do with military objectives.
The movie also features the great director Sydney Pollack in an acting role. This production is the moment when Redford and Pollack first met. Pollack went on to direct Redford in “This Property is Condemned,” “Jeremiah Johnson,” “The Way We Were,” “Three Days of the Condor,” “The Electric Horseman,” “Out of Africa” and “Havana.” The movie also features Air Force veterans Tom Skerritt and Gavin MacLeod.
Set in the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital in South Korea during 1951, M*A*S*H” follows two new doctors as they adjust to the absurdity of the war around them. As anyone who lived through that era will tell you, the movie is based only loosely on the Korean War novel by Richard Hooker.
Screenwriter Ring Lardner Jr. threw out most everything but the novel’s concept and delivered a screenplay that was really a black comedy about the U.S. fight in Vietnam. The setting in an earlier conflict somehow made it easier for the message to get through to a diverse audience, and Lardner won an Oscar for his work.
“M*A*S*H” may have lost the Best Picture Oscar to “Patton,” but director Robert Altman’s movie has arguably had more long-term influence on the culture. It spawned the most popular television comedy series of all time, and the movie’s chaotic style influenced the comedy scene for the next generation.
Is “M*A*S*H” a great movie comedy? Most definitely. Will you learn anything about the Korean War? Probably not.
What About …?
Some of you who have read this far are looking for a mention of the 1981 bomb “Inchon,” starring Laurence Olivier as MacArthur. Truly one of the worst war movies ever made, it has no place on a must-see list unless you’re looking for lessons in how not to tell a story.
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