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Howard Hughes' fingerprints are all over One Minute to Zero, a Korean War 'police action' picture about a dashing Colonel hero who personally fights in the trenches while romancing petite Ann Blyth in his spare time. The role would seem tailor-made for John Wayne, but in 1952 the box-office star was wrapping up his studio commitments to begin an independent producing career. RKO's top star Robert Mitchum steps in to fill the void. One Minute to Zero doesn't worry itself for a moment that the folks back home might not understand the complexities of the Korean conflict, and assumes that its audience already approves of hitting those verminous Commies with everything we've got. Star Mitchum embodied his character's personal foreign policy opinions: quite a bit later, caught between flights by a news film crew, Mitchum cut short a discussion of Vietnam, saying "Ah, if those people over there can't listen to reason I say wipe 'em out." Robert Mitchum could always be counted on to speak his mind.
The script by William Wister Haines and Milton Krims begins with the statement that the aggressive North Koreans, backed by The Soviet Union (no mention of Red China) are spoiling to invade the peaceful, happy Republic of South Korea (ROK). Fair enough, but nobody seems to realize that the north/south split in Korea was left over from the end of WW2 just five years before, and the hostility was mutual, with each side backed by a victorious superpower. Never mind, the North invades and the U.S. strikes back as part of a United Nations effort. In One Minute to Zero, we see exactly five minutes of ROK troops training (Mitchum personally shows 'em how to use a bazooka) and a couple of peeks at some Australian and English troops. For the rest of the movie it's Yanks vs. Reds, in conventional combat.
The script is the kind of hoot that shows Army and Air Force officers fighting while their women fret on the sidelines back in Japan. Colonels Steve Janowski (MItchum) and Joe Parker (William Talman) spring into action when the Reds swarm over the 38th parallel; for them this is just a repeat of Pearl Harbor. Aided by his sidekick Sgt Baker (Charles McGraw), Steve organizes the counter-offensive while Joe marshals his fighter jets for ground support. Steve falls in love with U.N. Inspector / front line nurse Mrs. Landa Day (Ann Blyth), on one occasion forcing her to evacuate in the nick of time. Mrs. Day continually objects to Steve's 'callous' decisions, only to realize later how wrong she was. Steve is wounded, recovers, and goes back into the fray to help the younger men; Landa won't marry him because she's already the widow of a Medal of Honor winner.
One Minute to Zero does seem like a John Wayne movie in that its primary message beyond delivering old-fashioned combat thrills is to reassure Americans that it's essential that we continue to fight political wars in places nobody ever heard of. Col. Steve and his professional fighting cohorts are up to the job, and can do it as long as they aren't restrained by clueless, silly fools making moral judgments about their line of work. Ann Blyth's Landa Day is very much like David Jansssen in John Wayne's The Green Berets: she just doesn't "get it" and is too quick to judge based on appearances. Landa's tizzy over Steve's "war crimes" functions like a silly misunderstanding in a lazy romantic comedy -- if someone would just tell her that Steve's not a civilian-murdering Nazi, there wouldn't be a conflict.
The main political argument from One Minute to Zero occurs when Steve discovers that Commie guerrillas are penetrating into the South by infiltrating columns of fleeing refugees. As staged by Tay Garnett, these sneaky Reds just throw white sheets over their machine guns and expect to stroll on through; a screening detail at the border would end the problem. (It's somewhat hilarious to see the refugee column politely sticking to the road, when anybody could take a stroll-detour and walk around.) Nope, Col. Steve's solution is to batter the road with artillery fire. This results in a bloodbath, of which we see exactly zero.
The ditzy Landa is of course shocked, shocked to find random bloodshed going on in a war zone. One Minute to Zero's lesson is that Landa and the rest of us silly civilians should shut up and sit down: wartime is the wrong time to debate how a war is conducted, Pilgrim. The movie has already ridiculed Landa and her U.N. cronies for speaking French and doing nothing at all except talking. The non-hawks in the movie exist mainly to be wrong all the time; Mitchum's opinion of the U.N. is summed up in the line "What are they gonna do, send a sharply worded reprimand?" 1
The bulk of the movie is fairly well done combat action, thanks to the film's seasoned cast of pros. Mitchum meshes well with William Talman and especially with gritty, to-the-foxhole-born Charles McGraw, whose answer to every question is "I knew a girl once..." The fighting Colonel is on good terms with Richard Egan, who plays a front-line Captain. For comedy relief we're given a portly private (Alvin Greenman) called "Chef" because he thought he was going to be made an Army cook.
Back at the Air Base in Japan, various pretty brides await the return of their flyer husbands. Whenever the movie takes the time to show a fond farewell, we suspect that the husband isn't coming back. Howard Hawks discovery Margaret Sheridan (The Thing from Another World) has a nothing part playing smoochy-bye with Talman. In one particularly callous scene, four brides wait for their husbands to return, but only three land their jets. The distraught new widow has to watch the other couples embrace before she's told, "Ah, Frank didn't make it." Personal note: Just for the record, despite scenes like this in hundreds of movies, military wives didn't stand waiting for their husbands at the flight line. The women usually didn't know their men were coming off flying duty until they stomped in and collapsed in their beds, to sleep for the next 18 hours straight.
Howard Hughes received plenty of support from the Pentagon -- he was uniquely connected -- which means that One Minute to Zero has an excellent mix of combat footage fresh from Korea and action scenes staged on stateside training grounds In Colorado. We're told that the Army was not pleased with the scene of the civilian massacre but that Hughes held firm: perhaps the excision of any 'aftermath' shots was a compromise. A brace of Starfighter jets zoom and zip low over the battlefield, dropping what appear to be real napalm canisters on "Red" truck convoys, etc. Some shots use excellent models, but most feature the real McCoy. The movie seems obsessed with death by fire, as seen in shots of incinerated corpses and scenes of enemy soldiers screaming as they're napalmed. One sequence of a G.I. being blasted by a Red flame thrower is as grossly graphic as a Mars Attacks trading card. If I were seventeen and eager to enlist to prove myself a man, that shot alone would convince me to take up embroidery instead. Oh, wait, a peacetime draft was in force...
Otherwise One Minute to Zero has fine production values, if you accept Japan being represented by a couple of chain-link fences and non-descript hotel corridors. I have a CD of Nat King Cole movie songs, and, sure enough, the instantly recognizable tune When I Fall In Love was introduced in this movie, as an instrumental. The effect is schizophrenic -- pro-war propaganda one minute, and high-class romance music the next. I have to think that One Minute to Zero confused audiences as much as the Korean War did itself.
When I Fall In Love wasn't even nominated as best song ... a thought that inspires visions of its soft melody used as accompaniment to montage images of gory combat from One Minute to Zero. That's entertainment!
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of One Minute to Zero is clean and sharp and looks near perfect in all respects. An original trailer stresses that the show is delivering the raw truth from the battle zone.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
One Minute to Zero rates:
1. Savant is technically a Korean War baby, having been born in a military hospital in Japan the same year One Minute to Zero was released. I react to this film's propagandistic content not because I'm against our fight in Korea, but because propaganda is propaganda. I was not automatically swayed by the radical slant of much film criticism back in the early 1970s, when analyzing older war movies was seen as a way to express anti-Vietnam War sympathies. In Jon Haliday's Sirk on Sirk (Cinema One, Viking 1972) we find a photo from Universal's "inspirational" Korean War film Battle Hymn captioned with the line, "The People's Korean Army fighting off American aggression." Battle Hymn is far more heinous than One Minute to Zero, as it claims heaven's approval for the controversial conflict. Both movies marginalize pacifists as misguided, unpatriotic and godless.
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T'was Ever Thus.