The Korean War Goes to the Oscars

The Oscars are almost here.  South Korea’s submission as best foreign film is The Front Line

For heart-pounding combat, it’s tough to beat. It’s sort of a Private Ryan Goes to the Korean War.

The Front Line is a version of the Korean War we rarely reflect on: the story of  South Korean and Chinese/North Korean  troops battling to control a hilltop during the final hours before the ceasefire. (The 1959 Hollywood movie, Pork Chop Hill, starring Gregory Peck dealt with the same theme.)

But in  Front Line, several nail-biting subplots tick away in the background.

After a South Korean officer gets fragged, a young Lieutenant is sent up from Seoul into the war zone to investigate. He finds mysteries.

Some of  the men, he discovers,  wear Communist winter uniforms —  for warmth, we’re told (Yeh, sure). And the unit has worked out a very  unauthorized local arrangement with the enemy in which mail is exchanged between North and South families.

There’s a lot going on this vital but useless hilltop on the edge of nowhere. The men are in a ROK unit called  Alligator Company because like baby alligators they have a low survival rate. Don’t pin your hopes on a happy ending.

I have no idea if the acting is Shakespearean or Saccharine (it’s in Korean with English sub-titles). But the combat sequences are convincingly harrowing. There’s an anti-war undercurrent running throughout the depiction of the savagery of combat.

Movies are a big deal in South Korea (their first cinema opened in 1903). Google “South Korean movies” and you’ll get 52 million results. So, apparently South Korea has a thriving movie industry and Front Line was a blockbuster on the home front. Around 2 million movie-goers bought tickets in just ten days.

Here’s a promo (in Korean) to give you a feel of the thing:

And here’s another, in English:

Here’s the New York Times glowing verdict: “On the long list of international films depicting war as a hellish, senseless enterprise “The Front Line” is one of the more compelling.”

The New York Post says it has “breath-taking battle sequences.”

Hollywood Reporter says it’s first rate, having  the right measure of humanist anti-war sentiment and personal heroism, turning the fates of a small company of men confined to one hellish location into an expose of how impersonal military operations literally makes mountains out of molehills.

Its full review can be found here.

Near the end, there’s an Alamo-type battle to control The Hill. Kapyong must have looked and sounded very much like this and it would be interesting to hear what Kapyong vets make of it.

The Forgotten War ? Well, definitely NOT forgotten in the land where it was fought. It was a desperate struggle for national survival.

ROK infantryman

South Korean casualty estimates vary wildly. The “low” calculation is around 50,000 while the high hovers at 400,000 (!).

ROK infantryman 1950 approx

Front Line  is a chilling reminder that  while Canadian and American and other UN troops  were killed defending South Korea, South Koreans themselves also died in staggering numbers, fighting for their country.

ROK bazooka crew

Quietly reflect on that on Oscars night.


About Dan Bjarnason

Dan Bjarnason is the author of "Triumph at Kapyong, Canada's Pivotal Battle in the Korean War." Bjarnason was a television news and documentary reporter for The National at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for over 35 years, He specialized in military history and has worked on documentaries from the Little Bighorn to the Falklands. He now lives in Toronto and can be reached at:
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