Thursday, September 18, 2014


On a battlefield in Korea strewn with dead soldiers with their hands tied behind them, Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans) is still alive, crawling on his belly and trying to get free. A figure with a gun approaches so Zack plays dead, but it turns out to be a 12-year-old boy (William Chun) who unties him. Zack calls him a "gook," and the boy, a war orphan, politely corrects him by saying he's South Korean, and soon, despite Zack's gruff exterior, the two have bonded and Zack nicknames him Short Round. Wandering through the foggy woods, the two eventually bond with Thompson (James Edwards), an African-American medic, and Tanaka (Richard Loo), a Japanese-American soldier. Zack most certainly does not bond with Lt. Driscoll (Steve Brodie), a cocky soldier whom Zack knows and doesn't respect, though Zack and his men wind up traveling with Driscoll's small regiment. They stop at an abandoned Buddhist temple near the front to set up a communications post, and the rest of the film is set at the temple as the men argue, become friendly, battle a sniper hiding in the temple, and eventually try to hold off dozens of attacking North Koreans.

This is widely acknowledged as the first Korean War movie, made and released during the first year of the conflict. It's not Samuel Fuller’s first film as director, but it is the first one that feels like a Fuller movie, and though perhaps not as full of battlefield action as some may like, it is nevertheless practically an archetypal modern war film with attention paid to both the physical and mental pains of warfare. Many WWII movies paid lip service to the multicultural makeup of the men in battle, but in this one, the culture clashes feels much more central to the film, without artificially weighing down the narrative. The point that African-Americans were still isolated back home is made but not intrusively, and the Japanese internment camps in the US are not ignored. Evans is excellent as Zack, who is mostly a hard-boiled, cynical guy whom we see soften a bit until the end when he comes dangerously close to having a full-fledged breakdown. Edwards is just as good as the quiet, stoic Thompson. Other cast standouts include Richard Monahan as a young guy who went bald in his youth and will try anything to grow hair, Sid Melton as a private who only talks to his burro (and only in whispers), and Robert Hutton as a former conscientious objector. I've heard that Spielberg used the "Short Round" name in INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM as a tribute to Fuller, and this explains the name: Zack's helmet has a hole in it due to a defective bullet going into his helmet, pinging around and exiting without hurting him; "short round" is a term for such bullets. The movie was shot on a low budget but between the fog and the temple set, it looks great. Highly recommended. [Criterion streaming]

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