Before the harsh realities of war depicted in a film like Saving Private Ryan came along, Pork Chop Hill from director Lewis Milestone was as real as it could get for viewers of the late fifties. Adding to the realism of this Korean War tale is having an authority figure such as Gregory Peck leading his platoons into battle.
There is very little glamour in this straight forward story of Peck and his platoon of well known faces trying to retake a rocky mountain full of trenches from the North Koreans. It turns into somewhat of a suicide mission that Peck is bound to and though he has his moments of self doubt he never falters in the duty assigned to him.
Plot wise there isn’t much to focus on as the mission is spelled out from the opening sequence. H.Q. has assigned Peck and his three platoons to plan and execute what they are considering a mop up operation. In other words it should be done with minimal casualties. For us the viewers that means it’s going to be one night representing the well known phrase, “War is Hell.”
Some of the men under Peck’s command get more screen time then others based on where their career’s were at the time of production. Solid players like Harry Guardino and Rip Torn are billed under Peck and both play their parts believably as men who are tired and just want to go home. Torn’s scene with Peck is extra tough on each character as they are related and at the point of their parting, Torn all but assumes he won’t be seeing Peck again.
Portraying Guardino’s pal is a young George Peppard on the cusp of becoming a leading man himself. Future TV stars Norman Fell, Gavin MacLeod and Martin Landau are caught up in the battle alongside a nice turn by Robert Blake. Blake stars as a youngster acting as a runner for Peck who gives his all in the midst of battle to verbally communicate with other platoon leaders and relay the messages back to Peck while dodging bullets and exploding grenades.
Also turning up in uniform are the faces of Bert Remsen, Kevin Hagen and briefly with a couple lines Harry Dean Stanton who would become somewhat of a cult actor as the years have passed by and still turns up on camera to this day.
The one role that I found doesn’t ring true is the character portrayed by Woody Strode. He’s portraying a coward and no disrespect to Woody the actor but his career has been built mainly on strong willed characters and tough guys. I had a hard time looking at him as a man who Peck has to basically put a bayonet to his butt and force him to the top and into the trenches.
One of the film’s better roles and performances goes to George Shibata as Lt. Ohashi. Peck’s second in command. He’s weary and like Peck knows that their days are numbered. Its his character that has a great line describing what every foot soldier feels, ‘Where’s all this push button warfare we’ve been hearing about.”
By the time of this film’s release, director Milestone had to be considered an old war horse himself. Going back to 1930 he had directed one of the great war films, All Quiet On The Western Front earning himself an Oscar for Best Direction. Logically he would seem to be a good fit and delivers on both the excitement and the futility of war.
It’s also notable that the script by James R. Webb allows for a scene where it’s more than obvious U.S. soldiers are killed by friendly fire. To offset the obvious blunder, Peck toes the party line to keep his troops in line rather then allow a mutiny to take root. Should you have the DVD from MGM you’ll also note that the original trailer has Peck the actor on camera discussing the film and it’s production as he goes into a sales pitch. Rightly so as he’s listed as a co-producer.