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Missing action: POW films, brainwashing and the Korean War, 1954-1968. (prisoner of war) Author/s: Charles S. Young
The 1963 film The Great Escape (John Sturges, United Artists, US) is arguably the most exciting prisoner of war (POW) film ever made. Even if you have not seen the film, you have probably seen clips of Steve McQueen's motorcycle jump. McQueen is fleeing on a motorcycle from a World War II German prison camp. Soldiers close in from all sides, but McQueen uses an earthen embankment as a jump and just barely clears a 10 foot barbed wire fence. He is eventually recaptured, but repeated escape attempts fortify his spirit and inspire others who do get away.
The Great Escape is an archetype of the POW genre. POW camps are built in a heroic region of the cultural landscape, a place where natural motorcycle ramps abut barbed wire fences and where no-one gets dysentery. This adventure formula dominates every group of POW films except one: those set in the Korean War. The daring breakout is a defining element in Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder, Paramount, US, 1953), Von Ryan's Express (Mark Robson, Twentieth Century Fox, US, 1965) and The McKenzie Break (Lamont Johnson, United Artists, US, 1970). The genre took on a new life in Vietnam POW/missing in action (MIA) films such as Missing in Action (Joseph Zito, Cannon, US, 1984), where commandos go back to free cinematic prisoners left behind at the end of the war. Valor comes so easily to the American POW that he can pause for jokes, such as in the long-running television series Hogan's Heroes. If it is a film set, the purpose of bars and wire is not to confine, but to provide something to escape through.
Almost invisible in prison camp adventures is the subject of collaboration. Informing and betrayal are fixtures of real incarceration; cooperation varies, but no-one gives just name, rank and serial number. The Hollywood image of captivity has such a hold on the imagination that it is difficult to counter, but in internal military documents, name, rank and serial number is known to be a myth. After Korea, the Army could not find 'any' former POW who gave only name, rank and serial number . Because humans are mortal, they try to satisfy their captors. Resistance is common, even valorous, but rarely obstreperous. Most prisoners choose life and quietly cooperate as little as they think they can get away with.
Collaboration is ignored in POW films set in World War II and Vietnam; they feature the brave but rare event of escape and skip the compromises of everyday survival. Stalag 17 came close, but its informer turned out to be a German spy educated in America, not a real turncoat. The adversary remained simple - the enemy without, not weakness within. The Vietnam films often addressed betrayal - on the home front. Vietnam POWs are double-crossed by the CIA, politicians, the media and peaceniks, but do not themselves give in. Although the Vietnam films add the 'establishment' to the POW's list of opponents, he still battles external enemies, not his own character. With few exceptions, Hollywood concentration camps are places to celebrate masculinity, not question it .
Sandwiched between the heroic films of World War II and Vietnam are a group of prison camp films that depart from convention in every case. This mostly grim subgenre depicted the American experience of captivity during the Korean War. Some form of collaboration with the enemy is a central issue in all six feature films about American soldiers imprisoned in Korea. These mostly forgotten films are, in chronological order, Prisoner of War (1954), The Bamboo Prison (1954), The Rack (1956), Time Limit (1957), The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Sergeant Ryker (1968). The Outer Limits television episode 'Nightmare' (1963) also fits the pattern. Prompted by a misperception of whole-scale collaboration in Korean prison camps, these dramas were forced to flip convention on its head and acknowledge frailty, weakness and unfaithfulness.
As cultural artifacts, films provide material for thinking about the society that produced them. Film producers are keen to the interests and concerns of the audience and, as shrewd businessmen, they provide a useful gauge of what was going on. However, film makers are not just barometers: as citizens, they are exposed to the same current events as everyone else. Producers often display social concern and exhibit an agenda in their films. In World War II and no less during the Cold War, many film makers sought to help maintain the morale of the country. Film makers' attempts to conform the POW dramatic form to a Cold War political agenda illustrate the times, as well as the difficulties of using POWs in patriotic myth making.
In an early scene in the film Time Limit, a senior POW collaborates by giving a propaganda talk to his fellow prisoners about cooperation. 'Communism is peace', intones the officer, played by Richard Basehart. As the fellow prisoners contemptuously wander off, Basehart's character begins breaking down and desperately pleads with them to pay attention, 'Listen to me, don't be such heroes'. This grim, windswept scene shot in black and white is typical of the emotional vulnerability portrayed in the Korean subgenre of POW films. Unlike the rest of the genre, there is little brave taunting of the captors.
The glaring difference between Korean POW films and others is attributable to the prisoner image being melded to different aspects of the particular conflict. The attention put on POWs was due in part to the wider Korean stalemate which threw into question the resolve of the entire nation. America's inability to prevail was transferred to the prisoners' failure to do the same. We may have betrayed the POWs in Vietnam, but, in Korea, they betrayed us. The hypersensitivity over prisoner performance contrasts with World War II, where victory made introspection unnecessary. Prisoners are important in Vietnam lore, but to different ends. H. Bruce Franklin and Elliott Gruner explored the representation of the Vietnam POW/MIA . The alleged abandonment of live POWs symbolized the government using men, then throwing them away when the effort became too costly. The Vietnam action film also emphasized the cruelty of captors, showing Americans to have been victims rather than perpetrators.
A different problem was raised by the Korean war, when the virtue of fighting communism in the less-developed world was barely questioned. American purpose was not impugned, only its strength and will. Korean War POW films reflected a crisis of national confidence during the early Cold War. Globalism brought new burdens, which seemed to have been fumbled during Korea. Although the Cold War consensus was broad, the POW films of the period reveal that domestic morale for the global crusade was problematic. Maintaining ardor for globalism was a complex affair, of which the Korean POW episode was no small part.
The prominence that prisoners and hostages have held since mid-century is an artifact of limited war. The modern prisoner became conspicuous only after America's rise to globalism brought friction in myriad regions of finite importance. In Korea, the American, Chinese and Soviet sponsors of the war did not want to risk a wider conflict; for this reason a negotiated settlement was reached. POWs are a footnote to conclusive conflicts because the winner dictates repatriation, but when decisive victory is too risky, as in Korea, the process of negotiation and compromise allows captives to become a source of contention. Limited war allowed a secondary issue like POWs to become the main sticking point during interminable negotiations and a major propaganda theme of both sides.
Fights that could not be finished introduced new difficulties in maintaining national morale during the Cold War. Americans traditionally go to war for high ideals in a Manichean universe. World War II was understood as a fight against the absolute evil of fascism and in the Cold War the concept of Red Totalitarianism was elaborated even further. Because Americans fought for survival and virtue, not Realpolitik, there was little room in the imagination for negotiation. If war is a contest between good and evil, then a negotiated settlement compromises virtue. Although the public had a simple understanding of the Korean conflict, government planners tempered their own impressions with a strategic conception of thrust and parry. Unlike World War II, there would be no goal of unconditional surrender. American interests in the Korean peninsula were limited; planners would cut their loses if the conflict undermined a global preponderance of power .
Shooting may have been limited to the Korean Peninsula, but fear was not. Fighting was so fierce and unpredictable that Seoul, the capital of South Korea, changed hands four times. General Douglas MacArthur's daring amphibious landing at Inchon seemed to offer deliverance when it sent the North Koreans scurrying home, but this relief ended abruptly when China entered the battle. The Red Army surrounded the Americans south of the Yalu River and inflicted 'the worst defeat of U.S. forces since Bull Run', according to Secretary of State Dean Acheson . US and UN troops fled south on valley roads, while the Chinese and North Koreans fired down from the heights. The 'great bug-out' was a shock to a country that had beat the Axis, invented the atom bomb, attained prosperity, rebuilt Europe and imagined its Asian enemies to be backward and incapable. The war did not feel limited, no matter its objectives.
The decision not to widen the war suggested to many a failure of national nerve, in particular as the stalemate dragged on through endless peace talks. President Truman's failure to find a satisfying end to the war destroyed his hopes for re-election and gave birth to the myth of a lost victory. General Douglas MacArthur did much to advance the thesis that there was 'no substitute for victory'. A proponent of nuclear attack on China, his eventual dismissal resulted in hundreds of thousands of angry telegrams . Although the myth of a lost victory began as an attack on the Democrats, it endured as Dwight Eisenhower also sought a negotiated end. 'We Can Win in Korea if We Want to', wrote General James A. Van Vleet in spring 1953, shortly after retiring as head of the Eighth Army in Korea. His article, printed in Life and Reader's Digest, denounced negotiations and called for military victory . The position did not prevail, but it reflected and reinforced doubts about American will.
For Washington, the failure to succeed militarily was followed by the search for a 'substitute for victory', in the words of Rosemary Foot . If large numbers of enemy POWs refused to return to communism, then the superiority of the West would be demonstrated even without military victory. As a condition of peace, Washington introduced 'voluntary repatriation', a novel interpretation of the Geneva Convention on the return of POWs which argued that individuals who chose to go elsewhere did not have to be repatriated . The plan had great potential: many of the prisoners were re-educated nationalist soldiers of Chiang Kai-shek or Koreans with family ties to the south. Plenty of soldiers needed little persuading not to return home and Washington made a huge effort to convince the rest . Nationalists from Taiwan were brought in to organize resistance to repatriation and scarce supplies were channeled through favored barracks bosses . An exceptionally violent atmosphere developed as Communist and anti-Communist factions competed for followers; 14 died in one clash on 10 June 1952 . Camp authorities mounted a massive indoctrination campaign as well, which included the translation of nearly 400 American films, such as Social Change in a Democracy and Meet Your Federal Government . All told, 83,000 Chinese or North Korean POWs refused repatriation out of 171,000 originally taken prisoner . No-one knows how many prisoners in anti-Communist-controlled compounds would have preferred to go home. One guesstimate was 85%, compared to the 15% actually repatriated . The Neutral Nations Repatriation Commission, in charge of determining prisoners' preferences, complained that 'not one of the POWs dare openly, in their camps, to ask for repatriation' . Facing a public relations disaster, China was loath to accept voluntary repatriation and held out against the armistice for many months. Whether voluntary repatriation is considered humanitarian or opportunistic, it still prolonged the war; POWs remained at the center of events.
China's POW propaganda campaign emphasized allied atrocities and conversion to Marxism. Early in the wrangling over peace terms, Beijing began relentless charges of germ warfare. The reports were supported by confessions extracted from US servicemen, supported by international inspections of varying credibility. Most - quite possibly all - of the germ warfare confessions were false. The accusations were so aggressive that at one time one-third of the Chinese media was said by Time to be devoted to germ warfare reports. The charges worried Americans; Time lamented that among Europeans, 'U.S. denials are swamped by "eye-witness" reports' . A Fortune headline read, 'Germ Warfare: The Lie That Won' . American POWs reading confessions or letters home were a regular feature on Radio Peking shortwave broadcasts. Typical was 'This is Sergeant First Class Richard K. Artesani, 3rd Battalion, Eight Army Regiment. Dear Folks ... The food is very good ... GI's not interested in war 5,000 miles away ... love to all, avoid another world war' . Such statements disturbed people at home and formed a bank of evidence for disciplinary proceedings after the war.
By the end of the armistice talks, the war was about prisoners as much as anything else. Talks lasted more than half the war and with POWs the main sticking point, all eyes were on them. Prisoners of Korea returned to a country that had been unable to prevail against seemingly unworthy opponents, worried it might not have the fortitude to bear another international crisis. McCarthyism, spy hunts and the 'loss' of China were distressing even without Korea. It was commonly believed that American-born spies allowed the Soviets to catch up in the nuclear race and the development of the Russian hydrogen bomb was confirmed right in the middle of POW repatriation . During the war, the germ warfare confessions suggested something odd was going on, but during the homecoming, these reports became dominant.
Unlike previous wars, Korea ended not with an atomic bang or conquest of a foreign capital, but when the last prisoner stepped off the boat. Under this kind of scrutiny and with no victory celebration for distraction, collaboration in prison camps could not remain the great unmentionable. Hints during the war of widespread collaboration became a flood as the POWs docked. It took a month to repatriate all the Americans, providing daily anecdotal evidence of treason. Each boat-load of returnees provided reporters with headlines like 'P.W.s Say Some G.I.s "Swallowed" Red Line, Bitter G.I.s Out to "Get" Informers Among P.W.s', or, simply, 'The Rats' . By the most agitated estimate, one-third of all POWs were guilty of some sort of collaboration with the enemy. By another account it was one in seven . Most disturbing were the defectors. Initially, 23 American prisoners chose communism over returning home . Reporters exposed the 'personal flaws' that led to treason. He was 'raised in a city slum', began one news story, and he had a sister confined to an orphanage and blinded by syphilis . Defectors were regularly seen as either craven or as little boys requiring heart-rending appeals. The governor of Maryland joined one mother in a taped plea asking her son to return home. 'We all make mistakes', suggested the governor. 'Regardless of what you may have been told', he added, 'the United States has no imperialist ambitions'. 'Jack, please hurry', added the mother, her voice breaking . Collaboration was understood as a defect primarily in the individual, secondarily in the environment, but rarely as a predictable occurrence in wartime incarceration.
The thesis that Korean War POWs were particularly prone to collaborate has proven tenacious, despite being meticulously debunked as early as 1963 by Pentagon consultant Albert Biderman . It was the captivity that was different, not the captives. In most conflicts, the frequency of collusion goes unspoken, but the Cold War put a premium on world opinion, a contest in which all Korea POWs starred. American prisoners were forced to broadcast confessions in Marxist jargon, rather than just quietly inform on fellows as in previous conflicts. The Korean War also included periods of incarceration as harsh as any in American experience - one-third perished - producing a highly coercive atmosphere. If there was more collaboration in Korea, it is best explained by the demands of the captors and the conditions of captivity, rather than a decline in the character of youth in the years since 1945.
Public innocence as to the reality of captivity was an important factor in the harsh judgment of the POWs. During World War II, it was axiomatic that prisoners were to give only their name, rank and serial number . Every soldier, family and reader of comics knew that this was the measure of honor. Military planners, however, recognized this as a fiction, more for elan before capture than a commandment for after. Even without physical torture, the compulsion to say something, even a subterfuge, is great. Not even General William F. Dean, the highest-ranking officer captured in Korea, stuck to name, rank and serial number. When seized, Dean possessed the most electrifying intelligence imaginable: the surprise invasion planned for Inchon. Dean reported that he was never harmed physically, but was repeatedly interrogated for 72 hours at a stretch. He talked and talked some more about the most inconsequential things he could muster, but he never gave up the prize. 'I was trying to divert them from really starting those oriental tortures', Dean privately told a Pentagon committee. During the third multiday interrogation, Dean sensed he was going to break and was then narrowly prevented from committing suicide. He was not bothered after that .
The Pentagon's Burgess Committee, which investigated Korean imprisonment, knew that few humans could resist as well as General Dean, let alone remain silent. A rear admiral told the committee that all of his own interrogation experts claimed to be able to 'extract information from anybody, and they say they can do it even without using actual torture, . A study of Air Force POWs in Korea reported that only 6% (12 men) recommended a policy of remaining silent, but none of them claimed to have succeeded . A Joint Chiefs of Staff study of World War II concluded that 'skilled interrogators have virtually no difficulty in obtaining information from prisoners'. The report suggested trying to satisfy interrogators with vague, ignorant-sounding answers . This doctrine of the 'indefinite answer' was not implemented, however and when prisoners returned from Korea, their country still expected them to have stuck to name, rank and serial number. When events conspired to expose the failure of this in every newspaper, the dismay was inevitable.
The high visibility and seeming pusillanimity of returned prisoners made them a target of frustration over America's lost victory. The perceived weakness of American youth in captivity became a staple of civic events and the chicken dinner circuit, where patriotic speakers lamented the deterioration of morals. Particularly active was Charles Mayer, a military psychiatrist by day, who gave talks and interviews into the 1960s. In a U.S. News and World Report interview entitled 'Why Did Many GI Captives Cave In?', Mayer used Korea for sweeping indictments of society: 'one third of prisoners lacked faith in America'; 'the American educational system is failing miserably'; 'we should develop more toughness'; and responsibility lies with 'people who raise and teach children' . Journalist Eugene Kinkead was also influential. Drawing on confidential material provided by the Army, he published a 40,000 word piece in The New Yorker and a mass-market version in McCall's. His book, In Every War but One, expanded the argument that America's youth was always dutiful until Korea .
Lack of masculinity and national spiritual decline were the more reputable explanations for their susceptibility, while another was 'brainwashing', a term made common by the Korean War. The belief that the Reds had 'gotten' to many prisoners was particularly disturbing. Brainwashing explained the inexplicable. It was colloquially understood as preternatural control of thought; it spread as urban myth as much as in news reports. Brainwashing is generally understood to mean the forced removal of old ways of thinking and their replacement by new ideas. The victims of brainwashing are not simply obedient; they become true believers. Its most extreme visualization was in the film thriller The Manchurian Candidate, where a POW automaton kills on cue and remembers nothing. The breadth of belief in brainwashing was due in part to the anxiety of the times, but the term's flexibility made it resistant to debunking. The New York Times, for example, used brainwashing as a synonym for the unusually systematic use of traditional methods of coercion: torture, starvation, filth and isolation . An internal Army report used an even narrower definition based on the elaborate pressure put on a handful of prominent East European political prisoners. Too extravagant a process for mass use, the Army concluded there was not 'any' such brainwashing in Korea . In public discourse, however, the term was commonly used with little qualification. Readers were free to understand it as new and diabolical or as old as bondage. Brainwashing by any definition was considered irresistible, which eventually complicated the jeremiad against alleged prisoner cowardice.
The idea of brainwashing was more significant in forming public attitudes than in permanently transforming souls. If the experience in Korea is taken as the working definition of brainwashing, the effect was transitory. Psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton made careful studies of repatriates and concluded that 'virtually all prisoners' gravitated back towards their old belief systems after returning home . Even the defectors, who remained in the 'brainwashed' environment, became disillusioned. The 23 defectors almost immediately became 21 and over the years the rest trickled back home as well .
While a permanent and profound revolution in thought patterns may not have occured, POWs were still subjected to intensive indoctrination. These techniques accounted for much of the collaborative behavior that on the surface seemed like a transformation of personality and world-view. In the camps, officers were separated from the enlisted and 'natural' leaders were quickly transferred. Race, class and political differences were encouraged in order to abrade personal ties and group identity. Although the Chinese proclaimed a 'lenient policy' of persuasion, not force, the camps were inherently coercive places. Upon their return, freed prisoners displayed an almost casual familiarity with death. When debriefed, they rattled off the causes of fatalities with numbing repetition: dysentery, pneumonia, tuberculosis, malnutrition, and untreated wounds. 'No medical treatment' was a catch-all cause of death . That simple answer was given to debriefers so many times that POWs seemed to categorize lack of treatment as a cause of morbidity, rather than the underlying malady. Disease made life precarious even for guards and collaborators; holdouts were last to receive scarce treatment. A decision not to sign a propaganda tract could easily kill a prisoner months hence. The need for medical care, food and patrons were daily inducements to cultivate the guards and compete with other prisoners.
In this fatal environment, the Chinese added a forum in which POWs could be minutely scrutinized for compliance: political education classes. These intensely monotonous sessions occupied a significant part of an average POW's day; prisoners hated them, but they left a mark. The sessions were notable for the extent that they used public scrutiny to challenge individual beliefs. Students were required to recite lessons and have them checked for soundness by the group. Chinese political trainers also used personal autobiographies and extensive public confessions to draw people out. These endless rounds of self-criticism exposed the building blocks of inner thought, allowing ideological correctives to be applied to each and every deviation. Prisoners became hyperalert to what views were expected of them and could give the appearance of a thorough conversion, right down to the class-struggle terminology in 'brainwashed' radio transmissions. 'Repetition, harassment, and humiliation were the principal coercive techniques the Communist enemy employed to support indoctrination'; concluded a US Army survey . Once removed from the camps, however, the prisoners no longer had cause to recite the dogma.
The Korean brainwashing episode was significant in elaborating the Cold War conception of totalitarianism. As Abbott Gleason noted, it tangibly illustrated the state's 'holistic reshaping of the individual' to conform to a new order. Gleason suggested brainwashing tales resonated particularly because of fears at home of the individual spirit being overwhelmed by bureaucracy and institutions of modernity. The brainwashing issue helped shift the concept of totalitarianism from the simple coercion of the police state to 'the enslavement of the helpless individual psyche' . With Korea, the encounter with communism became an unusually personal and intimate battle with demons of thought. Nationally, this encouraged the scrutinizing of the character of repatriates and, in Hollywood, it helped transform the central themes of POW films. Captivity became an inner trial, not an escape fable.
Returning prisoners of war became victims of American's crisis of confidence. Their performance was exhibit A that the individual citizen was becoming weak and vulnerable. Hollywood was quick to address the crisis of confidence after Korea. There was a clear progression in film formulas as Hollywood searched for the best treatment for the subject. Traditional heroic plots proved to lack verisimilitude to an audience aware of the record of collaboration. Judgmental stories that blamed POWs for capitulating would be callous and unentertaining. Scenes that focused on the torture and tribulations of incarceration were too depressing and implicitly questioned whether war was worth it. The subgenre finally settled on the courtroom drama as the best way to present the complexities of the Korean POW experience.
The first POW films attempted to fit Korea into conventional adventure scenarios. The 1954 films Prisoner of War and The Bamboo Prison both featured stock heros who sneaked into prison camps and only pretended to be collaborators so they could spy. The better-known film is Prisoner of War, starring Ronald Reagan and directed by Andrew Marton. Released just a few months after the real prisoners, the film was reportedly MGM's quickest production to date. The military initially assisted production by providing former prisoners for interviews and a repatriated officer as on-scene consultant. The Army also requested and obtained four pages of script revisions .
In the film, Ronald Reagan plays the fearless Web Sloane, who sneaks into a prison camp to collect proof of violations of the Geneva Convention. He pretends to be a 'progressive', the period term for collaborators, but the secret agent angle is drowned out by the film's main theme, Communist torture, disturbing even by today's standards. In one scene, a prisoner refuses to confess to germ warfare. Guards put his pet puppy in a burlap bag and smash it with rifle butts. He still does not talk, but other prisoners are shown breaking under horrible torture. In one frigid scene, guards dump buckets of water on a man and a grotesque layer of ice forms around his head. In another, a haggard face is repeating name, rank and serial number, the classic representation of resistance. The camera pulls back to reveal his twisted arms weighted down with boulders. Prisoners are also shown boiling in the sun, hanging from trees or capitulating before mock firing squads.
Prisoner of War flopped. The industry press, an authoritative judge of public tastes, pronounced War Atrocities Pic Limited in Appeal, . The producers had tried for realism by depicting documented incidents of torture, only to have it called 'a brutal, sadistic, and thoroughly cheap attempt to exploit public interest' . Although the film was almost universally hated by critics, the portrayals of torture were accepted as accurate. The reviewer for the Parent-Teachers Association (PTA) warned parents it should have been 'presented in documentary form to a prepared audience' rather than as entertainment. At least four persons used the word 'documentary' or a form of it in their reviews . A telling explanation for why a seemingly realistic movie was a 'botch' came from Moira Walsh in America magazine, who called it an 'endless succession of physical brutalities' without balance from a 'counteracting moral and spiritual force'. . Portraying men breaking under torture was too pessimistic, it was necessary to believe that faith and masculinity provided honorable ways out of all situations. If captivity was examined too closely, a film undermined the morale it was supposed to improve.
Critics did not like the hopeless brutality, and also faulted the secret agent subplot, because the real record was considered shameful. The film 'shockingly suggests', wrote Saturday Review, 'that all the Americans who played along with the Communists ... were really secret agents' . The film claimed collaboration was a ruse or the result of extreme torture, not personal inadequacy. Treason, at the time the foremost association with captivity in the public mind, had been dealt with by denying it.
After assisting production from the beginning, the Defense Department repudiated the film on the eve of general release. Army commands throughout the country were ordered not to aid publicity or even allow the usual military bands to play at openings. Although there was no detailed official explanation, the circumstances and reports from the film makers suggest the ways in which the film transgressed sound management of public opinion. The producers claimed the reversal was because of pending court martials. Director Andrew Marton suggested the Pentagon did not want to be in the position of 'investigating soldiers who were treated understandably in the picture'. A New York Times report suggested that the brass's problem with the film was that it portrayed collaborators as secret agents . A short statement released by the Defense Department did refer to the plot as 'too fictional' . A film with a similar plot, Bamboo Prison, reportedly provoked a similar criticism from a Pentagon spokesman who considered 'representing progressives as American Agents' to be a problem . Supposed traitors were turned into secret agents at a time when the military was prosecuting POWs and citing them as proof of the need for patriotic renewal .
The turncoats-as-agents plot was repeated later in 1954, but with an entirely different tone. The Bamboo Prison was a lighthearted B-movie. Unlike the Reagan film, this one was denied assistance by the Army from the beginning . In The Bamboo Prison, a Sergeant Rand infiltrates a prison compound to gather proof of unreported prisoners so that negotiators at Panmunjom, Korea can demand them back. As in the earlier film, he pretends to be a progressive. Sergeant Rand spends most of the film in heat. His strategy is to seduce Tanya, the Russian-ballerina wife of a top Communist (an effete American from The Daily Worker) whose office might contain appropriate documents. When queried by a confederate as to how he will obtain the files, Rand explains 'I'm in the process, let's say, of climbing under the covers with the proletariat'. Tanya is responsive to American manhood and joins the scheme, believing that the Communists 'have ceased to be men'. The film ends with Tanya escaping to the West while Rand stays behind as an ersatz defector.
The Bamboo Prison did not follow the sober approach of similar films, but it was still very much a response to Korea's POW trauma. It was not just that in those unsure times American males would be pleased to be found more sexually desirable than Communist intellectuals. The real-life defections of soldiers to China added to the concern that Marxist ideology might have genuine appeal to the downtrodden, to which the film replied with cutting ridicule. In one scene, America's superior income is celebrated by a POW who rushes about the camp making car sounds like an 8 year old (he sells cars in civilian life). He manages to enrapture the camp commander with a vision of cruising in his very own American convertible, radio blasting. Unfortunately, his salary is only 100,000 Chinese yen. 'What's that in American money?' 'Four dolla twelve cents'. The car seller makes a face. During an interminable political education class for POWs, the camera pauses on a student's eyes. He blinks and the audience realizes he has been asleep - with eyeballs painted on the eyelids. During a recitation exercise on Marxism, the Chinese instructor calls on Arkansas, a gangly, endearingly mischievous youth. Arkansas recites class-struggle dogma in a mocking manner, which the pupils understand but the Chinese do not. The instructor is tipped off by a collaborator and he begins shouting wooden rhetoric at Arkansas: 'You have insulted the politburo. You have answered proletarian hospitality with bourgeois ingratitude'. Arkansas feigns stupidity with his hillbilly accent, 'did Ah do ahll thaat?'. The film portrayed the sly, earthiness of street wise proles, who despite coarse manners and little education, see right through Asiatic communism.
Although The Bamboo Prison is infectious as a period piece, it got very little notice at the time. One of the few reviews complained that its tone was 'incompatible' with the reality of the prison camps. Another critic, a Mrs Louis Bucklin of the PTA, was particularly disturbed that the film's most devious collaborator posed as a Catholic priest . The Memphis Board of Censors sought to ban the film, citing the treasonous priest as an affront to the memory of Father Emil Joseph Kapaun, a heroic Army chaplain who died in captivity . The script did not tap into the seriousness of concern in 1954. Bob Hope scratched plans for a farce after the Army refused to assist it .
Neither realism, satire, nor heroic adventure were sufficient to address the POW crisis, so the Korean War POW subgenre adopted a new device: the courtroom drama. Three out of the next four POW films were court martial films. This paralleled real life, where the court martial became strongly associated with POWs. Although more sophisticated than adventure films, courtroom films brought new complications to using entertainment to address the POW issue.
Actual trials were few, but well publicized. Out of 4428 POWs returned, the conduct of 565 was seriously questioned. Most cases were dropped; others were sanctioned non-judicially with discharges, loss of rank or reprimands . Only 14 ever went to trial , though they were so publicized that they strengthened the perception of completely shattered discipline. The most chilling court martial served as an all-purpose example of POWs' failure of duty. Sergeant James C. Gallagher was convicted of murdering a dysentery victim by throwing him outside to freeze, reportedly because the man was too sick to clean himself . The men prosecuted were a staple of newspaper reports and editorials for several years. Their faces and stories made more impression than the scores of anonymous men allowed to go their way.
Interestingly, as media coverage of military prosecutions continued, a sympathetic backlash developed among a segment of the public who considered it unjust to punish victims of torture and brainwashing. The more the character of prisoners was challenged, the more their defenders pointed to the conditions of captivity. As a parent of three Korean war veterans wrote to the Army Times, 'Why not send some of these tallow bags we have in government that wants these boys punished sent over to Korea, let them go through the same punishment these boys took, two and three years of torture, then ask these fuse boxers what they think we should do with these boys, . An angry telegram from a Michigan veterans group complained that the Army was 'throwing the book' at POWs. The telegram was one of 'a great number' of similar comments sent to members of Congress . Every time another collaborator was sanctioned, it stimulated 'additional public discussion', noted Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson .
The emotional defense of repatriates presented a new challenge to Pentagon opinion managers and the film producers who chose to work with them. The unprecedented attention on POWs, even if negative, gave greater currency to the agonies of captivity. Sympathy for the prisoners' dilemma was at odds with exhibiting them as proof of America going soft. The significance of the sympathetic backlash is underscored by the pains to which patriotic film makers and the Army's Motion Picture Brand took to address it. Realist torture was out, adventure yarns were out and now it seemed they could not even blame the prisoners who broke because it evoked empathy.
Hollywood responded by seizing this sympathy and turning it into support for patriotic renewal. The first Korean POW feature film that satisfied the Defense Department enough to give full assistance was released in 1956 . MGM, the studio responsible for Prisoner of War got it right with The Rack, starring Paul Newman as an Army officer returning from captivity. A moving, brooding, talky film, it was the most thoughtful of the bunch and favored by critics, but it offered nothing to the action market. The Rack explores treason, but with surprising empathy for the anti-hero. It suggests that honest men might collaborate and considers what should be done about it. Captain Hall (Newman) returns from prison camp as a psychiatric casualty. Although decorated for bravery before being captured, he is now about to be tried for collaboration. He is greeted by his father, who is a tough officer of the old school. And if that were not enough, Captain Hall's brother was heroically killed in battle. 'Why didn't you die like your brother did?', the father asks at one point.
Captain Hall wants only to plead guilty and get it over with. However, his kind attorney, puzzled by the early record of bravery, insists on a defense. During cross-examination the script reveals Hall's background and circumstances of aiding the enemy. He grew up lonely in a family bereft of warmth. His mother died when he was 10 years old and the father was cold and distant, not even kissing or touching his sons. The Chinese jailers exploited his emotional vulnerability by putting him in solitary confinement. Hall's anguish is wrenchingly communicated with in Newman's courtroom dialog; there are no prison flashbacks. Solitary confinement crushed Hall with hunger, cold and, worst of all, loneliness. After months of pressure, Captain Hall's jailors sensed a vulnerable moment and revealed the death of his brother in combat. They threaten to leave him alone forever; Captain Hall finally begins signing propaganda statements.
After setting up an empathetic premise, the Rod Serling script changes course and begins undermining Captain Hall's account. In a key sequence on the stand, Hall reveals the loneliest day of his life, not in prison camp, but the day his mother died. The prosecutor points out that even after this, the worst day of his life, he still bounced back and became an officer, but in what was only the second worst experience, prison camp, he cracked. The prosecutor argues persuasively that the defendant was not at the limit of his endurance, it was his character that failed, rendering him culpable. In a nod to a debate of the day, the prosecutor adds in his peroration that even if society were remiss in preparing youths for the rigor of duty, it must not compound its error by failing to punish the guilty. 'If you find Captain Hall innocent of collaboration, you find all those other Americans who refused to collaborate guilty of stupidity.'
The Rack did not simply defend sympathy for collaborators, it sought to redirect it. In a scene near the end of the film, the father breaks down and acknowledges his emotional neglect of the family. The son forgives him in an embrace and the film seems to suggest that if only they had achieved such closeness earlier, Captain Hall, who was never physically tortured, would have had the spiritual strength to resist. By admitting that even well-meaning men can falter, The Rack added sophistication to the call for an unyielding Spartan code. The film's understanding tone showed respect for the backlash of sympathy for supposed collaborators, but civic mindedly tried to correct it. The Rack made compassion part of the rationale for unyielding discipline in captivity. Newman's spiritual pain did not come from the discomfort of a cell, but from his own failure to act heroically. The film called on society to steel its young soldiers for anything or face the shattered spirits who come home. The Rack optimistically concludes that valor is possible even during extreme isolation and deprivation. Surrender is still portrayed as a choice, character is the key variable, not the conditions of confinement. Captain Hall belatedly recognizes this and uses the court martial for atonement and a lesson to others. In a clear, strong, voice just before sentencing he says, 'I wish that everybody could feel the way that I feel now. Because if they did, they'd know what it's like to be a man who sold himself short'. He accepted the prosecutor's argument that he had given up faith in himself right when he needed it most.
The Rack informed a humiliated nation that a solution to the POW disgrace was already at hand: rededication to traditional values, as belatedly done by the Hall family. The message was well taken by critics. Saturday Review said The Rack showed 'the emotional and ideological unpreparedness of our own armed forces'. Catholic World called for 'better psychological background' for soldiers and approvingly noted the film's contrast between Newman and fellow-POW Lee Marvin, who did possess 'the inner resources' to maintain honor. The New Yorker added that the problem was society's inadequate nurture of children . The only caveats came from reviewers who seemed to feel that empathy for alleged cowards strayed from a manly ideal. Collaborators were certainly 'more to be pitied than scorned', according to a Nation reviewer, but scriptwriter Rod Serling committed 'ethical mugwumpery' by not condemning them unambiguously. Newsweek made a similar point and compared it to a Broadway play called Time Limit . The response to the prisoners of limited war remained divided between a sympathy that seemed to excuse weakness and a Spartan code that was unrealistic and heartless.
One year after The Rack, the play Time Limit (Karl Malden, United Artists, US, 1957) was remade into a film. In this variation of the court martial plot, a brave, selfless officer had collaborated with the enemy in order to save his men from mass execution. The film is a meditation on whether the officer (Richard Basehart) should be prosecuted for violating the military code to protect others. In weighing common decency against the exigencies of war, Time Limit was specifically addressing the lively public debate over the military's new Code of Conduct. In response to public anxiety, a Pentagon blue ribbon committee was appointed in 1955 to investigate the alleged collapse of discipline behind barbed wire. After lengthy and public deliberation, the Advisory Committee on Prisoners of War (also known as the Burgess Committee) produced a policy formalizing the traditional doctrine of name, rank and serial number. This time, the doctrine was made official in all military branches by an Executive Order and reinforced with more training. The public message of the committees's public report was one of firmness; the final sentence read 'The Korean story must never be permitted to happen again' .
Although intransigence in captivity was emphasized, the drafters of the code appreciated the difficulty of actually following this. Name, rank and serial number would be the official slogan of martial elan, but in disciplinary proceedings there would be understanding. 'In the code there is no room for turncoats', President Eisenhower assured the country, 'but there is assurance of compassion and justice for those who yield only under torture' . Although traditional policy was reaffirmed in 1955, it was not completely inflexible, contrary to common belief. It is not necessarily unforgivable to go beyond personal identification. When the code is read carefully, name, rank and serial number are mentioned as a minimum, not a limit. The key phrase accommodates a provision of the Geneva Convention which directs prisoners to identify themselves: 'Should I become a prisoner of war, I am bound to give only name, rank, service number, and date of birth' . The code requires a POW to resist further interrogation 'to the utmost of my ability', a less-noticed phrase recognizing a finite nervous system . Although the wording of the code had a dose of realism, the public presentation had little. During discussion in 1955, an Army general expressed the common, unforgiving understanding of the code this way: 'The tree of liberty thrives only when it is watered by the blood of patriots' . The code attempted to accommodate two contradictory needs: getting the most resistance possible from captured troops, yet showing mercy for repatriates and respecting public sympathy for them.
Like The Rack, Time Limit built sympathy for a man accused of violating the code, yet still received an imprimatur from the Army's Motion Picture Branch. The accused officer had high motives: he made enemy propaganda to save the 16 men in his command. He felt that the lives of his subordinates should not be sacrificed for his own honor and reputation. The climatic clash between duty and sentiment is played out by a gruff general and the Richard Basehart character. In a somewhat involved element of the plot, it is revealed that the general's son had been murdered by other POWs for collaborating (despite enduring protracted torture). The general is appalled to learn his son died ignominiously: 'He was raised to know better'. Basehart pleads for understanding of prisoners' situation. 'Your son was a hero for hundreds of days ... And on only one day did he break. In the name of God, aren't all those other days worth something?' Basehart suggests there should be a 'time limit' on heroism.
Just when the script seems to favor the explanations of collaborators, the general is allowed his soliloquy. 'You talked to me of sixteen men. Multiply that by thousands. Try carrying that weight on your shoulders. Try sleeping with the cries of those wives and children in your ears. I've done that, Major, every war commander has, because until a better world is built, it's got to be done. That is why we have the Code, Major. The Code is our Bible and thank God for it.' On that note, it is decided not to drop charges against Basehart and the court martial proceeds. Like in The Rack, a nod was given to the defenders of the POWs. The film then explained that because the enemy would use our basic decency against us, harsh decisions were unavoidable. In order to minimize suffering in war, heroism had no upper limit.
It appears that some critics did not comprehend the military's rationale for assisting a production like Time Limit. Reviews reveal a debate locked into a simple-mindedly heroic conception of captivity. Films in Review called the story 'tendentious' for even considering a threshold for resistance. 'A time limit on heroism? ... What an insidious implication!' . Newsweek was just as unforgiving of the Basehart character: 'the Code of Conduct condones no collaboration of any sort under any circumstances. It is always the sad duty of an officer to sacrifice the lives of a few rather than risk the loss of many - in this particular case, the minds of many through false propaganda' . Some had such a shallow appreciation of the realities of captivity that they denied that there was even a dilemma to consider. Robert Hatch wrote in The Nation that Time Limit conjured 'brain-teasing' choices just for entertainment, even though disloyalty in Korea resulted not from 'honorable dilemmas' but from 'confusion, ignorance and bad conscience' . By looking seriously at the intensity of coercion, the film contradicted the view that collaboration was caused by gutlessness.
The negative reaction to a film approved by the military illustrates the trickiness of using POWs to stimulate patriotic verve. Respecting popular sympathy for the POWs seemed to violate the propaganda imperatives of the hard-liners. In order to be effective, a film had to address the public horror at enemy treatment of prisoners, the source of what the Advisory Committee on Prisoners of War referred to as 'misguided public sympathy' . However, the revelation that strong, honest people can collapse, even without physical torture, threatened the heroic narrative which morale seemed to rest on.
An odd thing about both The Rack and Time Limit is that in real life, neither main character would have been court martialed. In actual disciplinary policy, collaboration in Korea was mitigated by duress. Internal Pentagon documents were explicit in saying that 'no disciplinary action' was taken if POWs colluded under duress . Strong penalties were carefully reserved for the most opportunistic . However, common currency gave a dogged impression that name, rank and serial number was the test used for legal action. The very films favored by the Pentagon reinforced the perception that shattered young men were being tormented a second time.
The next feature, John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (United Artists, US, 1962), does not fit easily with the other films, but it does support the belief that POWs were blameless because free will had been washed from their brains . In this inventive fantasy, a young POW is brainwashed to the point that he can enter a memoryless state of suggestion and commit murder on cue. He is programed to murder a presidential candidate as part of an elaborate Communist plot. The completeness of brainwashing is displayed in a surreal scene early in the film. A group of young men, American POWs, are sitting in a hotel meeting room. A lecturer, a middle-aged woman in a colorful hat, drones on about hydrangeas to a ladies' flower club. The camera does a slow, 360]degrees] pan, showing the POWs sitting listlessly while the flower club members fan themselves. However, when the camera rotates back to the lecturer, she is no longer the flower lady, but a sinister-looking Chinese Communist named Yen Lo (actor Khigh Dhiegh, an all-purpose Asiatic villain who was also the camp commandant in Time Limit). Yen Lo explains to his real audience of malevolent, Communist officials that he has brainwashed the men (in 3 days!) to think they are at a hydrangea talk. The subjective camera view keeps cutting between middle-aged women with large hats and menacing men with scars, wearing jackboots. While the prisoners listen to flowers in the mind, Yen Lo reveals to his official audience the plan for the repatriated POW to assassinate an America leader. The effectiveness of brainwashing is proven by having a prisoner strangle a friend on stage.
The Manchurian Candidate is the only one of the films to do well then or since. Female lead Angela Landsbury got an Academy Award nomination for it. The success of the film demonstrates how deeply the fear of capture and absorption by an enemy organism resonated with the audience and how far the imagination might go to explain collaboration. One critic, Bosley Crowther, worried that although 'as wild a piece of fiction as any', the film might agitate the more 'anxious minds' of the day . Another reviewer considered the film's robot assassin plot plausible enough to need a corrective: 'I do not believe', wrote Moira Walsh, 'that brainwashing ... is as precise or efficient a process as the film makes it out to be' . Like Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal, the premise was taken seriously enough to disagree with. Brainwashing was such a vital concern that even a paranoid extreme was compelling. Brainwashed prisoners could hardly be held responsible for their actions, bringing into relief the callousness of POW critics.
The suggestion that POWs were unfairly condemned is more explicit in a 1963 episode of the science fiction television show The Outer Limits . The episode 'Nightmare' is a parable on the dangers of suspicion and collaboration. It warns that soldiers must strengthen group loyalty and avoid feminine weakness, because the enemy's best method of breaking solidarity is to sow suspicion of treason. In the story, a group of warrior-astronauts from 'United Earth' are taken prisoner by an alien race, the grotesque Ebonites. The plot revolves around determining which prisoner will collaborate first. A creepy voice warns the new prisoners 'you will cooperate in all ways, resist in none'. One by one the men are subjected to torture, trickery and hallucinatory mind control. The parallel to Korea is explicit: human traitors assist the Ebonites in interrogation and one prisoner pessimistically refers to the success of Chinese brainwashing in Korea 'and they couldn't even control the five senses'.
In an interrogation booth, the captors probe for each man's personal weakness. The Ebonites terrorize Private Dix (Martin Sheen) by taking his voice away with a wand. (Dix continues to mouth just name, rank and serial number.) He is then drugged and his mother comes to him in a hallucination. Dix's voice returns under the spell, but he hesitates to talk out loud because the Ebonites might hear. His mother's voice is comforting: 'whisper all about it in my ear'. Another prisoner also has a maternal hallucination. Krug, the German, is distressed to death when his mother berates him for turning a relative into the Nazis while still a boy.
As individuals return to the group from interrogation, suspicion grows that someone has talked. They all claim to have given only name, rank and serial number, but each man has a reason to be mistrusted by the others. Deals are hinted at when the Ebonites restore the sight of a blinded prisoner and the voice of Private Dix. Even more suspicious, one man was never touched at all. At one point, the camera cuts to two off-scene humans who are observing the affair. They are evaluating the prisoners, trying to guess which one will collaborate first. One suggests it will be Private Dix because 'there's too much Mom in those eyes'.
Among the prisoners, suspicion fixes on Jong, the Asian member of the group. All mistreatment ceased after Jong's interrogation and food and living conditions suddenly improved. The question is settled when an Ebonite appears and recites classified information that could only have come from one of them. The alien seems to want them to know there is a turncoat; they take the bait and conclude it is Jong. The men decide that one of them must execute him. They draw straws, but the man with the short straw hesitates, he suspects the enemy is inducing mistrust: 'we must not let them make us do this to ourselves'. The pause allows attention to turn to Private Dix and what it was he whispered to his mother during the dream. Dix begins breaking down, his mother reappears in another hallucination and confirms that he gave classified information to her, which she relayed to the aliens. Dix falls to his knees, sobbing: 'tell me I didn't say anything to you, please Mommy'. The Ebonites had used mutual suspicion to get men to turn on one another, just as America had blamed the Korean POWs. Above all, soldiers must retain their masculine camaraderie, because the diabolical enemy will use anything, even a prisoner's secret shame: his weakness for his mother.
Although men were killed, injured and nearly executed, it is revealed in the end that it was all an elaborate ruse to train the men for real captivity. The Ebonites turn out to be friendly - they were helping the humans prepare astronauts for encounters with less amicable aliens. The Ebonites are incensed that the exercise became so heartless and deadly. An officer defends the harsh training regime, saying it was necessary in light of Korea. At the conclusion, however, a voice-over seems to side with the more advanced and compassionate Ebonites. The narrator sadly intones that military strategists would study the Ebonite episode intently: 'perhaps they will learn something'.
The theme of Cold War America out of control is more explicit in the 1968 feature Sergeant Ryker. Lee Marvin is Sergeant Ryker, sentenced to death in the midst of the Korean War. (The name 'Ryker' is ironically similar to John Wayne's Sergeant Stryker in Sands of Iwo Jima.) Technically not a POW film (he is in prison here, not there), it still makes collaboration the central theme. The drama takes place concurrent with the second evacuation of Seoul, lending an air of hysteria and suggesting a rush to justice. The case against Ryker seems open and shut: Sergeant Ryker never denies joining the Red Army. However, as another compassionate defense attorney investigates, doubts and sympathy rise. A general warns the lawyer not to risk his career defending a man like Ryker, particularly while thousands of non-traitors are fleeing the capital. The establishment general is putting the system ahead of justice and it becomes clear Ryker is being railroaded. The betrayal theme is carried further by Ryker's wife, who would really rather be with the lawyer.
Eventually, cross-examination reveals that Ryker was a hero, not a turncoat. He had been on a secret mission when he crossed over, the truth known only by his superior officer, who was unfortunately killed in action. The real security breach turns out to be, significantly enough, an officer, whose Korean mistress is exposed in court as a spy. Ryker was not only falsely charged in court, he had been serving his accusing compatriots in a mission of extraordinary danger. The Chinese had believed his defection, it was his own people who did not. A moment of justice comes on the witness stand when Lee Marvin erupts in a marvelous hissing, spitting, tantrum. 'Go ahead and hang me, I risked my life for you brass types."I only made one mistake, boys, I came back.'
Sergeant Ryker was originally a 1963 television film. A film distributor added outdoor shots to the courtroom dramatics and rereleased it to theaters in early 1968. The rerelease took advantage of the developing Vietnam anti-war audience by resurrecting an earlier episode of disillusionment .
It was in the crisis of confidence of the Korean war that the POW first took a central place in modern military dramas. The danger of global engagement was highlighted by the high-profile prisoner of limited war. This representation of vulnerability has been reinforced by repeated captivity dramas, including Vietnam, the seizure of the Pueblo warship, the embassy takeover in Iran, kidnaps in Lebanon, Gulf War pilots and, not least, in popular fiction. The prisoner joined Pearl Harbor and the atom bomb as symbols of the nation's vulnerability to foreign evil. One of the most evocative representations of overseas involvement is one of victimization.
As the first limited war of its kind between East and West, Korea put unusual pressure on prisoners to cooperate publicly. A perception of whole-scale collaboration emerged that was too traumatic to be ignored, even in film entertainment. Loyalty, patriotism and commercial savvy encouraged producers to make films that would guide and reassure the audience. However, bringing a seemingly shameful episode to the screen was a delicate process, in particular since public attitudes were still evolving. Film makers tried different formulas and routinely turned to the Army's Motion Picture Branch for consultation and assistance with set materials. The series of Korean War POW films steered between the imperatives of propaganda and audience acceptance. Eventually, the subgenre arrived at a formula that acknowledged the pressure soldiers were subjected too, but still found a respectful way of demanding unending resistance. The films paralleled the development of public sentiment, where the initial shock at collaboration prompted an examination of captivity, followed by greater sensitivity, then disillusionment.