In the latter months of 1950, John Ford was asked to make a film for the Navy chronicling the efforts of United States troops in the Korean conflict. Ford, with his love for the rigors, tradition, and camaraderie of military life, quickly agreed. He and a small team of his most trusted photographers took off from California on Christmas Day and arrived in Korea on January 1, 1951. After spending five weeks on the ground, at sea, and in the air, Ford and his men returned to edit the footage, turning in a 50-minute documentary that proved unsuccessful with theater owners and audiences alike. Though it lacked popular success, Ford’s film provides a fascinating insight into the mood of a country (the U.S.) and a shifting Western ethos that continues to this day.
Ford’s team arrived within two months of a major Chinese offensive that had pushed back U.N. troops, so the film ends up carrying a grim tone throughout. Ford uses a series of repeated set pieces that contribute to a dark and aimless vision of the war. Several times we see orphaned Korean children or homeless Koreans; soldiers marching down roads and through villages; naval ships firing their guns; artillery blasting barren hillsides; soldiers encountering yet another hill; planes dropping napalm bombs into wooded areas and villages. In the case of the last two, Ford highlights the repetition by having the narrator point out “another hill,” or “napalm again.”
The unrelenting nature of these realities is only compounded by a significant absence: the enemy. While the repetitions carry on throughout the 50-minute run time, we catch a glimpse of the enemy only once—three men who have been taken captive by the Americans and now are being held for questioning. They say little and threaten nothing. Completely disarmed, one fails to see the real danger of these “enemies.” If the enemy were completely absent, the viewer might imagine the terrible tortures of a war against the communist infidels. However, the weak presence of these men only serves to heighten the question lingering and unspoken throughout the film: Why?
Even more interesting is the strong contrast This Is Korea! makes with Ford’s earlier and masterful World War II documentary, The Battle of Midway. Where Korea offers nothing in the way of a clear enemy, and only a grim and mechanical determinism among the soldiers, Midway provides just the opposite. There we see real purpose and resolve on display, a clear and threatening enemy, and ample heroism on display. Where Midway stands as a document of the unambiguous struggle between good versus evil and the clarity of days gone by, Korea plants us firmly in the contemporary cultural milieu—a world without a collective purpose and only a grim resolve pressing us forward.
Throughout his career, Ford shows himself fascinated with the sense of community and tradition so evident in military life. Yet Korea sees an Army where those good things lose their significance in the face of an amorphous goal. Near the close of the film, U.S. warplanes drop bombs on a village, with the camera so near that it shakes violently at each impact. After two or three of these bombs, narrator John Ireland speaks the following lines as we watch the soldiers move in to clear the village: “For this is Korea, chums. This is Korea. And we go in.” The images combined with that line, from which Ford draws the film’s title, offer a chilling reflection on a post-WWII world—men slinking into a smoky ruin, without any apparent reason.