“Pork Chop Hill” (1959)
by A.J. Hakari
1959’s Pork Chop Hill is a bridge linking two different eras of war pictures. Prior to its release, the image of the genre (barring the typical exceptions) was one best described as propaganda for a good cause, films made to entertain as much as to inspire audiences to enlist or help out some other way. These stories came packaged with tragedy and devastation, of course, but one can only watch them now and see just how much of the horrible reality was left off the screen. But Pork Chop Hill aims to change that, expanding its scope to surround the bombast found in rah-rah combat features of the time with a feeling of despair more relatable to those viewers who experienced action firsthand. It’s a balance that plays out remarkably well in the movie’s favor, resulting in a wise and well-rounded narrative that holds out for hope while acknowledging the hell that war is.
Pork Chop Hill takes place during the waning days of the Korean War. Peace talks are underway in Panmunjom, with American forces working around the clock to negotiate a truce with the armies of North Korea and Communist China. Some say the conflict is just about over, but tell that to Lt. Joe Clemons (Gregory Peck). He’s in command of a unit on the front lines that hasn’t known a moment’s peace in ages, with resources depleting and more troops perishing on the battlefield each day. Another blow is dealt when word gets out that the Chinese have captured Pork Chop Hill, an outpost that, aside from housing a bunker or two, holds no tactical value to the enemy. Because of this, Clemons’ superiors are hesitant to send reinforcements and have more lives potentially lost, but the lieutenant has other ideas. Knowing that Uncle Sam will ultimately lose face if they’re beaten over the fate of one lousy little hill, Clemons leads the charge to seize Pork Chop back, taking it upon himself to see that the men under him possess the morale to put up what may be their final fight.
It was only fitting that Pork Chop Hill be helmed by Lewis Milestone. As the director of 1930’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Milestone knew a thing or two about war cinema, having helped shape and popularize a formula from scores of genre installments to follow would borrow inspiration. But with Pork Chop Hill, he’s much more concentrated on acquainting the audience with the feeling of being trapped on the battlefield instead of acknowledging any melodramatic clichés they’d gotten used to. There is a large cast of characters, but we don’t get to know them for long before the conflict that takes up the lion’s share of the running time goes into effect. Our glimpses at what subplots do emerge are fleeting at best, since establishing a “you are there” atmosphere is of greater precedence to Milestone than awarding every character their moment in the sun, regardless of how expendable they ultimately are. Some soldiers crack jokes, some display cowardice, and some wander about the hill in a daze, each contributing to a mosaic of reactions that tells us everything we need to know about how differently war impacts certain people. You don’t even come away from the movie recalling most of their names, yet the experience is harrowing all the same, between the constant artillery barrages and psychological taunts issued by an enemy broadcaster (Viraj Amonsin). The setting comes across as very authentic, and the editing does an amazing job of distracting you from the fact that the film consists mostly of the same continuous battle.
Of course, Pork Chop Hill needs something to keep things focused, a moral compass to look to and prevent the proceedings from drowning in hopeless despair. Fortunately, the picture has just that, in the form of Peck’s Lt. Clemons. As the story’s events unfold, we see him run absolutely ragged, at his wit’s end from having to deal with the bureaucratic heel-dragging delaying the support he needs to putting on a brave face for those exhausted troops searching for a reason to continue. It’d be easy to put Clemons on a pedestal and let a couple monologues do all the necessary spirit-lifting (which an actor of Peck’s incredible stature could do in his sleep), but Pork Chop Hill is more respectful than that. The picture allows this character to be a human being, letting us see his thought process at work as he tries convincing himself that his mission has a shot at success before he can honestly tell his men the same thing. Peck’s performance is a true stunner, and he’s backed up by an expansive cast of familiar faces with various degrees of screen exposure. The likes of Martin Landau and Harry Dean Stanton show up only for a brief moment or two, while others (including Woody Strode and Robert Blake) are fortunate enough to have their characters featured just a little more prominently than others. The shared sense of camaraderie and fatigue really comes through, and while the flick still has a few traces of Hollywood gloss hanging around, not one condescending note is struck during its 99 minutes.
Pork Chop Hill ranks alongside Sam Fuller’s The Steel Helmet as one of the greatest movies about the Korean War (a conflict depicted far less frequently on the screen than others). It has an intelligent head on its shoulders, one that enables it to hope for the best in dark times while keeping realistic, to bring the horrors of battle to the screen without coming off as oppressive, and to depict the enemy as calculating without painting them as soulless monsters. Pork Chop Hill isn’t pro-war or anti-war but rather simply about war, matter-of-fact in its presentation of the subject of combat but more than able to whip up a compelling story with the material it has.
(Pork Chop Hill is now available on Blu-ray from Olive Films.)