Screening the Never Ending Korean War

By Mark Morris

News category: General

The Marines Who Never Returned (Lee Man Hee). Image: The Korean Film Archive


South Korea had begun to develop its own small-scale film business after the end of WWII and the defeat of the Japanese colonizer. The destruction and dislocation caused by the Korean War meant that Korean film-makers would only begin to recover by the latter half of the 1950s. Given what they and their country had been through, it is not surprising that neither film producers nor their audiences put war films high up the entertainment agenda. There was one film about the communist guerrillas (Piagol 1955), a biopic about a courageous army officer (Strike Back 1956), but in general melodrama and historical costume drama were the genres that would pave the way for the future ‘golden age’ of 1960s cinema.

By that decade audiences had enough distance from the war to accept fictional versions of it; script-writers and directors had themselves learned lessons from foreign, usually American war films about gripping plots, believable characters and an acceptable ending. For both Koreas the war had ended in a bloody and futile stalemate. Everybody lost almost everything. The narrative arc of a Hollywood war film could take the audience along confident that, whatever the sufferings of this platoon or that brave soldier, victory over the axis powers made it all worthwhile. Korean film-makers would have to find solace in other places. In the North, the cult of Kim Il-sung would present the catastrophic war as a victory over American imperialism.

In South Korea combinations of individual bravery and patriotism with the state ideology of anti-communism could be relied upon to provide some sense to the chaos. While many battlefield action films were made, some of the best Korean visions of the war deal with the effects of the war on the civilian population. 

If there is such a thing as a classic Korean War film, it has to be Lee Man-hee’s The Marines Who Never Returned (1963). The opening scenes represent a much simplified version of the Incheon landings of the 15th of September 1950: our small group of marines stand in for what had been an entire Marine division. The energetic editing, moving camera, and the bleak monochrome landscape evoke the fear and excitement of battle in close quarters. The style was state-of-the-art for its era: we are still many years away from Saving Private Ryan (1998).

The brutal shooting of an innocent mother and discovery of a mass killing introduce one constant element of the grammar of the war film in South Korea. The enemy is ruthless, inhuman, seemingly driven by  no motivation beyond a will to destroy. Later we learn that one marine’s brother, who had joined the communists, was responsible for the death of a fellow marine’s sister. The familial connection does nothing to humanise what is presented as the wanton cruelty typical of this enemy. On the one hand this is a moving recognition of how the war tore families apart; on the other, the anti-communist code required that those on the wrong side share no common humanity with our side. 

Another element of war film grammar is so common that it usually passes without comment. The Americans and other allies are generally invisible. They may send supplies or a radio message, they may strafe your men mistaking them for the enemy, but they are almost always elsewhere. This invisibility is played for comic effect when the lads visit the local bar-brothel. In a venue normally off limits to Koreans, the temporary absence of GIs allows for a hectic, patriotic reclamation of both the place and its women. 

The celluloid Korean war is fought by South Korean soldiers and marines versus an undifferentiated, merciless North Korean menace. The Chinese, after the autumn of 1950, are enemies, too, of course. But they don’t feature in most films and where they do, they aren’t involved for very long. Here, exceptionally, the desperate final stand of our marines is crushed by waves of Chinese troops. Lee Man-hee had the backing of the military in making his film: it may seem ironic to us now that they chose to provide hundreds of real Korean marines to play the attacking villains.

One other feature common to the genre is a focus on a small group of soldiers with a variety of character types to keep us engaged and invested in their individual fates. The Korean audience already knew many of these actors well: the tough sergeant (Jang Dong-hwi), clowning private (Ku Bong-seo), handsome yet troubled marine guilty over his brother’s treachery (Choi Moo-ryong). Jeon Young-song, the little girl mascot, was already established as the nation’s favourite child actor. All this added up to more than just a film about fighting. This ‘band of brothers’ structure wasn’t new to The Marines Who Never Returned.  It has long been deeply embedded in the common sense of the genre. 


There are many varieties of films dealing with the destructive impact of the war on ordinary people. Here Korean film-makers had to find  their own way. The premise of Hollywood war films was that mercifully the actual fighting took place far, far away: on French beaches, blasted German towns and cities, tropical islands in the Pacific, jungles in the Philippines. Koreans had no luxury of distance. The war may have been in your own street or village road, blasting through the doorway, devouring your family as you watched. There were no non-combatants, only  people more or less lucky – or more or less ruthless. 

Park Nam-ok’s The Widow (1955) was an early sign of how cinema might treat the bitter legacy of the war. Park, Korea’s first woman director, created a realistic portrayal of a war widow trying to survive in postwar society. It was a significant but modest offering. Shin Sang-ok’s To The Last Day (1960), on the other hand, was a major project by the director-producer emerging as the most important figure in Korean cinema.

To The Last Day (Shin Sang-ok). Image: The Korean Film Archive

Based on the true story of colonel Kim Ki-in as previously recast in a popular radio play, Shin’s film tackled the difficult topic of grievously wounded veterans, their wives’ struggle to support them and their children, and efforts to provide work for women whose soldier-husbands were – like all but two of Lee Man-hee’s marines – never returning. With two stars in the main roles, Kim Jin-kyu as the husband and Choi Eun-hee as the long-suffering spouse, the film was a hit. Nowadays both Korean and British people are likely to find the melodramatic aspects of it excessive, almost operatic. It should be worth noting, however, that To The Last Day was awarded a special jury prize in Berlin back in 1962.

Kim Kee-duk’s South and North (1965) takes a different approach to war and melodrama. Rather than deriving from the suffering of torn bodies  or of wives with wavering faithfulness, the anguish here is both romantic and deeply tied to patriarchal family values. The sheer power of love, it seems, has driven a northern officer to defect to the southern enemy.  It has at the same time kept him human. The passion he expresses in a desperate hope to be reunited with his de facto wife and their child has vaccinated him against the baleful inhumanity of communism. Unfortunately (but fortunately for melodrama) the ROK army officer who takes him prisoner is married to ‘his’ woman and has been raising ‘his’ child as his own. Love is one thing, but who has rights over whom? The theme of love overcoming communist soul-corruption does occur in other films but is nowhere else explored with this intensity. 

South and North (Kim Kee-duk). Image: The Korean Film Archive

There is no other war film quite like Park Sang-ho’s The DMZ (1965). In the same year the characters of South and North were acting out their torment, Park had taken two small children out to the Demilitarized Zone along with an army escort. He worked them through the script, then had them wander about through the debris of war. Through some patient, probably painful low-angle filming and through the children’s words and actions he created a myth-like parable on the futility of war in general and of Korean national division in particular. The clumsy intrusion of an evil ‘red’ spy seems a crude ideological prosthesis, something stuck on to appease the censors.

The DMZ (Park Sang-ho). Image: The Korean Film Archive

With the haunting film Jiseul (2012) we jump forward quite a few years. The narrative itself, however, asks us to go back, before the date of Sunday the 25th of June 1950 (usually considered the day the Korean War began). On that day, goes a cozy version of the story, a peaceful democratic South Korea was threatened by a sneak attack from the communist North. Progressive historians long ago dismantled this myth. Major armed rebellions had been underway in the country from 1948, serious resistance to the government from 1946.

During 1948-49  the southern island of Jejudo became the focus of the most violent suppression of dissent – or of anybody labelled ‘balgaengi’ commie – when soldiers and right-wing terror squads were set loose on the population. You don’t need to understand the complex events leading up to the events in Jiseul. Most viewers will share the villagers’ sense of bewilderment and mounting fear as their small world is slowly ripped apart. O Muel has produced a rare synthesis of beauty, humour and terror.


The myth of happy democratic South Korea is precisely what the 1952 Hollywood feature One Minute to Zero introduces us to in its opening sequences. Selective newsreel footage of a peaceful, sunny, baseball-playing nation, combined with actress Ann Blyth’s mellow voiceover, illustrate what is under attack by a communist invasion.

One Minute to Zero (Tay Garnett)

The scenes of officer Robert Mitchum calling in an artillery barrage on a column of refuges raised the ire of the US Army; they had, after all, provided the artillery unit as free extras. The scene does a clever job of interweaving documentary footage and material filmed at the main location site of Fort Carson, Colorado. War reporting early in the conflict had stirred a growing if understated concern over South Korean civilian deaths due to America’s indiscriminate use of firepower from air and ground forces. In the film, however, such concern seems both recognised and immediately cancelled out: the treacherous reds thought little of forcing their own people into the mouths of the cannons, American troops were simply forced to respond. 

Far from Hollywood, or from Fort Carson, documentary film-maker John Krish thought he was on to a good thing when he was approached by  the War Office in the mid-1950s. They wanted a movie made that would illustrate the techniques used by Chinese interrogators/’instructors’ to break the spirit of British POWs captured in Korea. It would be his chance to make a proper, compelling narrative feature, he thought, one that might attract the interest of important producers. After making this stripped-down noir masterpiece, he learned that it would not be screened publicly at all: it was ‘restricted’, available to selected military and intelligence personnel only. Captured (1959) is the logical ancestor  of later Cold War features such as The Manchurian Candidate (1962). In a South Korean context, its spiritual offspring would include films such as Lee Chang-dong’s Peppermint Candy (1999) or, more pertinently, Chung Ji-young’s powerful denunciation of interrogation/torture in National Security (2012). Today, techniques like those enacted by Krish’s actors will be familiar to many people in Xinjiang.

Captured (John Krish). Image: The British Film Institute


In the summer of 1988 Thames Television presented a remarkable documentary series concerning the Korean War. Korea: The Unknown War was also shown in Australia, but the version which went out in the US on PBS in 1990 had been edited, it seems, to avoid inviting US government wrath. This was the first serious historical treatment of the conflict from all sides involved, North Korea very much included. It was the first one made, chiefly in English, to treat the experience of the Korean people as significant, rather than focusing on the heroism and suffering of US soldiers. PBS, and its Washington DC affiliate WETA, has made up for any earlier cold feet by working with the fine documentary film-maker John Maggio, backed up by respected historian Bruce Cumings, to create this two-hour film. Korea: The Never-Ending War (2019) is the best single documentary about the Korean War we  now have.

Mark Morris is a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. For the past 40 years he has been teaching and researching East Asian culture, with a special interest in Korean Cinema. He is an advisor to the London Korean Film Festival and participates regularly in a wide variety of film events in the UK, Europe and South Korea.