Though flawed in a number of areas — mostly concerning its depiction of the Red Chinese, which rarely gets beyond the level usually associated with WWII propaganda movies and their characterizations of Nazis — Lewis Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill (1959) is in many ways the first modern war film. Produced by star Gregory Peck as the first — and only — film from Peck’s Melville Pictures (apparently, Peck was impressed by his own turn as Ahab in Moby Dick (1956), regardless of how anyone else may have felt about his performance), it is the first Hollywood film to question openly the judgment of those in charge of the United States armed forces. It depicts the orders to take Pork Chop Hill in Korea in 1953 as nothing more than a pointless exercise of no strategic importance except to impress the Red Chinese with a show of American military might — the better to bluff them at the peace negotiations. It’s all the more remarkable that such a film was made a scant six years after the Korean war.
Bringing in Lewis Milestone to direct was a mixed blessing. An often pointlessly fussy filmmaker, Milestone was chosen primarily on the strength of having helmed one of the quintessential anti-war films, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), thinking he might pull off the same sort of thing here. In some ways, he does. He also imbues the film with a sense of style, but that almost expressionist style doesn’t always suit the film. Moreover, someone less entrenched in Hollywood filmmaking might have prevented the caricature bad guys and lines like, “These people aren’t just Oriental, they’re communists.” Still, the attempt is worthy and the film succeeds more often than not as a portrait of the futility of war.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke