Interview: Richard Slotkin Revisits America's 'Forgotten' War, Korea, on Film

L: Poster art for "Pork Chop Hill" (1959); R: Historian Richard Slotkin. (Bill Burkhardt/

Tensions on the Korean peninsula in March led North Korea's government to nullify the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War (1950-1953), 60 years ago this July.

The recent bellicose rhetoric from North Korea reawakened many to the significant, but "forgotten" war that the U.S. fought overseas in its attempt to stop the spread of Communism across the Korean peninsula.

The Korean War, or "police action" as President Truman called it, occupies a relatively hazy zone in American cultural history. It falls in between the rosier days of World War II and the bracing disillusionment of Vietnam. It was the first war after World War II that didn't result in a clear victory for the Americans and consequently was a source of some embarrassment and frustration.

In remembering the Korean War now, we can look back at the movies of that period to see what they tell us about the war and America's image of itself in Asia. Many remember the movie and the hit TV show M.A.S.H., though few know about the films of the '50s and '60s that spoke so eloquently about the American troops in Korea — films like The Steel Helmet (1951), Pork Chop Hill (1959), and All the Young Men (1960).

Asia Blog talked with the cultural critic and historian Richard Slotkin, Olin Professor of English and American Studies at Wesleyan University at Middletown, Connecticut, about what remains so enduring in these key Korean War films and the larger issues about race and identity in America that they tackle.

To what extent are some of the key Korean War films a continuation of films made about World War II, and to what extent do they explore new themes that weren't brought up in previous American war films?

The Hollywood movies of World War II established a new form of American national mythology. A new genre, the "Platoon Movie," represented the U.S. as a multi-ethnic multi-racial democracy, whose internal differences merge into a single nationality under the pressure of war against a powerful and evil enemy. This represented a departure from existing U.S. mythology, which represented the nation as essentially a "white man's republic." This new vision of U.S. nationality was linked with (or implied) a vision of WWII as "The Good War": a war of necessity not choice (national existence was at stake), defensive (the homeland was attacked by an aggressor enemy), completely victorious; and victory in war led to better democracy at home (more racial/ethnic equality, prosperity).

When the Korean War began, Hollywood attempted to interpret the new struggle by reference to the old. The essential structures of the Platoon Movie (multi-ethnic/racial unit represents U.S.) were shifted to the new setting. But by the time these films appeared — after Chinese intervention had destroyed the chance for total victory — it was clear that the Good War model did not quite apply: e.g., the war was only indirectly defensive of the homeland, and would not end in total victory.

The Steel Helmet
The Steel Helmet

The effect can be seen in Sam Fuller's Steel Helmet (1951). Fuller updates the ethnic mix to reflect post-war racial politics by including the Japanese American Sergeant Tanaka and a black medic named Thompson — the last war's enemy is incorporated in the platoon, and Truman's integration of the armed forces in 1949 is acknowledged. However, Fuller's treatment of the war itself emphasizes the unlikeness between Korea and the Good War. The film doesn't offer, or even suggest, that the episode we are seeing is one in a larger narrative pointing toward victory. It opens with an image of defeat. The platoon seems to be adrift in time and space.

Disorientation also pervades the action of the film. For most of the first part of the action, our platoon blunders about in a fog-shrouded forest searching for the enemy, and for the "Temple" where they are supposed to set up an observation post. Once they get to the temple, dialogue suggests that they have a clear view of the countryside. However, the camera shows only a gray blank through the windows or open balconies of the temple. The interior space is darkly shadowed, with many levels rising from hidden basement to attic, lines of sight obstructed by idols and screens, with many obscurely-purposed rooms off the central hall. Thus confusion and obscurity characterize both the foreign war-world outside the temple, and the space we are called upon to defend.

Similarly, the enemy is not clearly defined (in visual terms) until the closing battle sequences. Chinese or North Korean soldiers are unseen snipers, hidden in the fog. The enemy guerrillas use civilian disguise — Zack and Short Round are first attacked by what appear to be a peasant man and woman praying at a shrine. Fear of subversion by a disguised enemy pervades the film. For the platoon's situation thus mirrors the political crisis of America at the start of the Cold War: facing not only a problematic kind of foreign war, but also subversion from within, which undermines our faith in the "temple" of the nation.

Retreat Hell (1952), the most ambitious film about the war made while it was in progress, was highly ambiguous — or perhaps ambivalent is the better word. Thus the first half of the movie sets us up for a war scenario like that in Bataan or Objective Burma: a helpless and "orphaned" Asian people will be rescued from a cruel oppressor by paternal American warriors. But that scenario is aborted and transformed as the film incorporates the Chinese invasion and the Marines' retreat from Inchon. The Chinese assault is terrible and overpowering, beginning with night-time human wave attacks across ice-bound fields.

The Marines will have to fight their way of a trap to reach the sea, where the Navy can evacuate them. From this point, there are no references (visual or otherwise) to the Koreans we had come to rescue. The war is all about escape, Corbett's paternal care applies only to his unit, and victory is redefined as getting all of his men "home." After incredible hardship and bravery, that goal is achieved. All of the characters we know well have survived, Corbett and several of them are evacuated, Hanson takes over the command. But there is no "Back to Bataan" moment at the end, no declaration that the "unfinished business" of the war will be taken up and pushed to victorious conclusion. By the time of the movie's release it was clear that neither the government nor the people wanted to undertake such a project.

In Pork Chop Hill, the issue of race, particularly as it deals with the representation of Asians, seems quite unique. Could you talk about this a little? Especially the character of Lieutenant Ohashi, the young Japanese American who is the Gregory Peck character's second-in-command.

The essence of the Platoon Movie myth was its linkage of the struggle for ethnic/racial equality with victory in war. Ten years after the Korean War began, and on the eve of Vietnam, Pork Chop Hill revives that formula. The racial element is especially significant, because the film coincides with the rise of the civil rights movement, and links that movement to American engagement in the Cold War. The role of Lt. Ohashi is especially important. As a Japanese American, his presence symbolizes the dynamism of the American melting-pot democracy: a man racially linked to a former enemy has now been incorporated in the American "Platoon." Although Ohashi is American-born, his association with the wartime Japanese enemy is emphasized by a line of dialogue, in which he says the attack he will lead is "the last banzai."

Ohashi's role is a variant on something that is normal to the Platoon Movie: what I call the "race-face" convention. The contradiction of the genre is that the racial mixing on the U.S. side depends on the struggle against an enemy who is also racially defined. So in Bataan (1943), when a white character curses "the dirty Japs," a two-shot pairs him with a Filipino soldier, who approves. If "our Asian" agrees with the curse, "we" can't be guilty of racism. In Pork Chop Hill, Ohashi offsets the highly negative portrayal of the Chinese and Korean enemy.

An even more important use of race-face is in the handling of black soldiers. In an early scene, we see the American troops advancing up the Hill, opposed not by bullets and shells but by the blast of Communist propaganda from loudspeakers. The white troops pause, then go on. But a black soldier, Franklin, actually falls to his knees, as if physically unable to resist the threats and promises of this iron-voiced enemy. Clemons forces him to rise and resume the advance. Franklin symbolizes the idea that, as an oppressed group, blacks would be more susceptible to Communism, less affiliated with the nation; hence civil rights becomes a necessary measure to strengthen the country for the Cold War.

But the film has to offset this denigration of black patriotism with a race-face device. Clemons turns Franklin over to a "tough sergeant" played by the black actor James Edwards. Though he never attained the iconic status later achieved by Sidney Poitier, Edwards was identified with strong black characters in earlier movies on the race problem, most notably Home of the Brave — the major race-problem film of the World War II period. He had also played the black medic in Fuller's Steel Helmet, where he fends of the Communist major's criticisms of American Jim Crow laws. Franklin asks Edwards, why is he — a black man — doing this to a brother? Edwards grabs him by the wrist — there is a close-up of the two black hands — says he has his eye on Franklin. The implication is that Edwards wants to prevent him from shaming his race by his cowardice, discrediting the patriotism of his black comrades.

It is worth noting that in the book that is the source for the film, the race of the soldiers is NEVER mentioned. So all of this is invented for the movie.

President Truman's Executive Order 9981, issued in July of 1948, led to the end of segregation in the U.S. military. As you've discussed in your work, Korean War films deal with race in ways that few other combat films had before. In this reconnaissance scene from the 1960 movie, All the Young Men, Private Kincaid (Alan Ladd) asks his Sergeant (Sidney Poitier) who's going to take the lead. To which Poitier replies, "You'll be able to see me real good up there against the snow."

Video: All the Young Men (1960)

What's going on in this short scene?

All the Young Men, like Pork Chop Hill (released within a year of each other), links the achievement of civil rights at home with victory in the Cold War abroad. All the Young Men is the more conventional of the two films. Sidney Poitier is the lone black man entrusted with command of a platoon that contains two bigots: a Southerner (who is utterly unsympathetic as a character) and a tough sergeant (played by Alan Ladd), whose prejudice is partly professional jealousy, and dissolves as Poitier proves his skill and courage. The clip reflects the racial tension. Poitier's remark that he will be visible against the snow is addressed to Ladd's character; the "night fighter" passage engages Poitier with the Southerner. The Asian woman in the temple doubles the racial theme — we are there to protect good, helpless Asians from the bad Communist Asians, and she also does not "see" the color difference that plagues the Americans.

It's interesting to look at the variety of films made about the Korean War in the '50s and '60s. How does a relatively conventional film like 1954's The Bridges at Toko-Ri, with William Holden and Grace Kelly, compare to deliberately more gritty and realistic films like The Steel Helmet and Pork Chop Hill?

Toko-Ri was based on a best-seller, which is its reason for being — as opposed to All The Young Men and Pork Chop Hill, which use the Korean War as a way of symbolizing the issues that will shape a looming new war in Asia. Note that it's about pilots and planes, not an infantry unit in close combat. There's a distance from the enemy, and war, which doesn't dissolve until the end, when the hero is shot down. I suppose one could see in that an allegory of the drift into war — though I don't see that as in any way intentional.

Rio Grande
Rio Grande

In your course on Westerns as a genre at Wesleyan University, you discussed the Korean War in the context of a movie like John Ford's Rio Grande (1950). How did filmmakers incorporate some of the issues that the war brought up into the narratives of movies like Westerns?

Westerns deal with war-related issues indirectly. This is especially true of the Vietnam War, when Westerns were actually the only action genre to systematically engage the issues arising from the war over an extended period of time.

In the Korean War period, John Ford's cavalry Westerns play a unique role. Ford had considerable experience in the active theaters of war, and as a result was strongly averse to making fiction films about WWII — he only agreed to make They Were Expendable at the urgent request of the Navy. The cavalry Western — a subgenre he effectively invented — allowed him to deal with his understanding of the war indirectly. So in the first film, Fort Apache (1948), he interrogates the premise that military service in war promotes democracy and ethnic harmony at home; and at the same time questions both the justice of U.S. treatment of Native Americans (or "enemies" in general) and the motives that drive military leaders (ambition and glory rather than national interest or military wisdom).

The second film, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) has as its subtext a concern with U.S. military preparedness — will the "sons" of the men who won the Big War (WWII in fact, the Civil War in the film) have the soldierly commitment and virtue that will enable them to deter enemy aggression (in the film, an uprising of the tribes). The last film, Rio Grande, was released in 1950. To the "preparedness" theme of Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande adds an additional question: how far can the military go to achieve its ends? Can it violate the Mexican border to "punish" the Apaches?

Unlike the earlier films, Rio Grande demonizes the Apache enemy, suggesting a discarding of the moral scruples and concerns of earlier films, an acceptance of the need for an unlimited war. Although Ford cannot have had Korea in mind when the film was conceived — the war hadn't begun — by the time of its release the question of border crossing, an willingness to violate legal restraints on military action, were very much before the public: for example in MacArthur's demand for the right to cross (first) the 38th Parallel, then to approach the Yalu River border with China, and then (after Chinese intervention) to widen the war to China.

To what extent are the themes from these Korean War films used again in more recent movies?

Cinematically, Korea is still the "forgotten war." Vietnam has replaced it as the war that symbolizes the doubtful character of U.S. military action. Even MASH, set in the Korean War, appealed because it was indirectly about Vietnam. I wonder if the growing tension on the peninsula will provoke some new looks at the war.

Video: Richard Slotkin's lecture on John Ford's Rio Grande at Wesleyan University

Richard Slotkin is the author of the influential "frontier trilogy" — Regeneration Through Violence, The Fatal Environment, and Gunfighter Nation — which examine the roots of American mythmaking from the 1600s to the Cold War. His most recent book, The Long Road to Antietam: How the Civil War Became a Revolution, was published in July 2012 by Liveright Press.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Farisa Khalid
Farisa Khalid was born in Bangladesh and raised in the US. She attended Vassar, NYU (MA in Art History), and Emory University (MPH).