The first major film to portray British troops in action during the Korean War when it was released in 1956, A Hill in Korea is a worthy, if unspectacular effort which depicts the spirited resistance of a small, isolated patrol of British soldiers in danger of being cut of by the advancing Chinese army during a strategic retreat.

The film is notable for an excellent British cast that includes Stanley Baker, Harry Andrews, George Baker, Robert Shaw, Percy Herbert and even a young Michael Caine in his first credited film role. The performances are strong throughout and, while it is difficult to reconcile the characters with those of the modern American war films to which we have become accustomed, the acting is very credible, particularly during the scenes between the fighting, in which the actors’ stage backgrounds shine through.

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Like so many great war movies, this is as much a film about the internal battle between soldiers on the same side as it is about the battle between opposing armies. We have a tension between soldiers from the upper echelons of society and those with a staunchly working-class background; those noted for foolhardy bravery and their hatred for anyone guilty of fear and cowardice; and a battle between those in authority and those who seek to overthrow it.

The problem with this film is that for all its big name cast, relatively strong script and commanding performances, it lacks individuality and a distinctive identity. It feels like more of the same rather than a new presentation of war as befits a new conflict and little to add to a genre which was already saturated when the film was released. The dialogue does at least have a contemporary edge in its many references to the plight of National Service men, conscripted at 16, who were “old enough to fight, but too young to vote” and the majority of the men display a weariness of war and reluctance to be part of the conflict which represents a shift from the general patriotic output of World War Two films.

In spite of this, A Hill in Korea feels like it could easily be set during World War Two, in the North Africa campaign or the battle in Burma. Nothing about the film feels sufficiently different to justify its status as a film about the Korean War and I was left with the distinct impression that this was just another war film. It may only be the presence of Baxter and Caine but, in addition to the obvious comparisons with World War Two movies, I couldn’t quite escape the similarities with Zulu, in the portrayal of a hopelessly outnumbered hodgepodge of mismatched British soldiers trapped in a confined space and forced to battle heroically against impossible odds.

This, then, is a worthwhile watch for fans of the traditional British war film, but by no means the best example of the genre and not a film likely to resonate massively with a modern audience raised on a far more revisionist depiction of war.

Reviewed on: 03 Jul 2009
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A Hill In Korea packshot
A patrol gets lost behind enemy lines during the Korean War.
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Director: Julian Amyes

Writer: Ian Dalrymple, based on the novel by Max Catto

Starring: Stanley Baker, Harry Andrews, George Baker, Robert Shaw, Percy Herbert, Michael Caine

Year: 1956

Runtime: 78 minutes

Country: UK


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