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September 18, 2008

Masters of War

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This is Korea!
John Ford - 1951

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San Pietro
John Huston - 1945
VCI Entertainment Region 1 DVD

The reason why the serious cinephile will want to check out a copy of Surrender - Hell! is because this is one DVD where the bonus features are more meaningful than the main attraction. While some might find John Barnwell's yarn of battle in the Philippines of some interest, the more compelling viewing is in the documentaries by John Ford and John Huston. Also subject to discussion is how these two filmmakers choose to insert their own personalities and predilections into their observations of war.

This is Korea! has John Ford stamped all over the film. Save for "O Little Town of Bethlehem" instead of "Shall We Gather at the River", and Koreans instead of Native Americans, this is clearly John Ford's version of the Korean conflict. We have the Navy and the Marines, nuns and children, including one boy with the improbable name of Babe Ruth DiMaggio. The colors of Trucolor are no longer true, but are sometimes muddy or washed out. Still there are recognizable visual touches in the use of silhouettes in some of the shots. Ford even inserts some lowbrow humor as he as tended to do in even the best of his films. John Ireland informs the audience that the fight is to same Korea from the Commies, yet near the end he asks the audience to explain the reasons for the war.

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From a purely historical point of view, I was unaware that napalm was a major tool of battle. There was a scorched earth policy when it came to the land and the people designated as the enemy - "Burn 'em out! Cook 'em!". As in Ford's features, what is of interest is the male comradery, and the function of doing a job, no matter the meaning of that job. Politics aside, what Ford and his camera crew do well is to shoot film alongside men who are shooting guns in the bitter cold of a Korean winter. Nor does Ford shy away from showing the casualties of war, at least in a form palatable for moviegoers in 1951. Ford isn't afraid to do a bit of showboating with a credit to himself as a retired Navy Rear Admiral, but agree or disagree with his view of the world, John Ford always remained true to his convictions.

John Huston narrated his documentary, San Pietro but otherwise had chosen to step back in his observations of this battle in Italy. Credits inform the audience that parts of the film include dramatic recreations. The most striking images are of the barren trees of what were wine and olive vineyards. Both Huston and Ford show the human cost of war in shots of the graveyards where soldiers were buried, but Huston also filmed the men digging the plots, and one anonymous soldier's wrapped body laid to rest. Huston, like Ford, also seemed unable to resist the easy sentimentality of filming children at play in the most miserable of conditions. Reportedly, the version available is heavily edited due to concerns from the Army that Huston's original film was too "anti-war". Huston could have made a film of more slanted intent as in Across the Pacific, but real life war had the effect of tempering the more boisterous side of John Huston with a larger degree of introspection.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at September 18, 2008 12:43 AM


Peter, it's good to know about this dvd. I had never heard of this Ford film. But I did recently rent from Netflix and watch Ford's 20-minute Midway documentary recently. I really liked it.

Posted by: Girish at September 17, 2008 11:23 PM