War is hell, kid. Bland, tedious hell. Don't let anyone tell you different. You can even send Bob Mitchum over there, and it's still going to be the dullest thing to happen to you since high school algebra.
Okay, maybe not all war, but as it applies to this particular film, yes, war is the Big Gray Blah. The 1952 actioner One Minute to Zero was made in the middle of the Korean War, leaning heavy on the anti-Commie propaganda while working the average numbers for a B-grade combat picture. Robert Mitchum stars as Colonel Steve Janowski (yeah, Eastbound and Down fans, you read that right), a somber vet who has seen enough of firefights and knows an uphill battle when he is ordered into one. The movie opens just as the conflict between North and South is getting serious. Steve is ordered to evacuate all Americans, putting him in direct conflict with a dishy United Nations nurse. Linda Day (Ann Blyth, Mildred Pierce) is an idealist who wants to help people. She has seen the effects of war before, she lost her husband in World War II, and that is why she wants to help. It hasn't necessarily made her respect the dangers or understand that fighting requires tough choices, but that's what, in movie science, makes the chemistry between her and Steve so special.
Eventually, Steve is moved into the thick of the fighting, and Linda is reassigned to an aid station close enough to see him blow up some refugees. He had his reasons for doing it, though, something the namby-pamby U.N. girl doesn't get. It's a subtle message for 1952. These bleeding-heart peaceniks are too busy joining hands around the world to understand the Reds are nasty bastards. Steve's friend Joe (William Talman) shows Linda the body bags of all the American boys that died before Steve rooted out the spies in the midst of the fleeing civilians, and that wakes the girl up much more than that slap Steve gave her across the face. I'm not kidding. She immediately goes and prays for his soul.
Listen, I know that there are true believers in every skirmish, and I'm not arguing in favor of the North Koreans or even debating the politics of the action we took over there back then. I'm just saying that director Tay Garnett (The Postman Always Rings Twice) is laying it on a little thick here. Propaganda is a tricky racket. It can work when the filmmakers have a little fun with it (Powell and Pressburger's 49th Parallel for instance), but even that kind of material ages badly. One Minute to Zero is too self-serious to be entertaining. It hides its jingoism under a po-faced sense of its own righteousness, disguising its thirst for blood by making Mitchum a weary warrior who has had his fill of conflict. The grisly cutaways to burnt bodies is meant to show us how he feels, but Garnett manages to make us weary in a whole other way. One Minute to Zero just isn't a very good movie.
The two major reasons One Minute to Zero fails are also supposed to be its two leading selling points: the romance and the action. Neither element takes spark. The affair with Blyth is pretty much sidelined in the final act, which ironically (or not) is when the action starts to pick up. For the early part of the movie, the fighting is unremarkable. It's mostly tank vs. aircraft, and Garnett's budget isn't fat enough to make Colorado Springs look like a Korean DMZ. Try to find a shot that has a jet and a tank in it at the same time, I don't think you can.
The threat level elevates in the last 1/3 of the movie. Steve figures out a way to cut off the North Korean supply chain, but it's a suicide mission in a bottleneck canyon, and of course support and resupply trucks can't get there when they are supposed to and it pushes him and his men to the limit. The fighting gets into closer quarters and the odds grow exponentially, and the griminess starts to mean something...
...and then it's over. We are told that the victory is of some consequence, but it's kind of a hollow proclamation, at least in terms of the greater war. Which is maybe where One Minute to Zero went the most wrong. It tried to substitute genuine character for rhetoric. Steve Janowski is actually an interesting guy, one who fights because it's the job he chose and who completes the mission despite its ultimate futility. That is something more befitting the classic Robert Mitchum image. The jingoism doesn't really sound convincing coming out of his mouth.
The Warner Archives brings One Minute to Zero to DVD as a blue-backed disc manufactured on demand. The full-frame, black-and-white image hasn't been given a full overhaul, and it is somewhat worse for wear. There are lots of scratches and marks on the source print, and the digital authoring is overly grainy with lots of shimmering in the lighter areas.
The soundtrack is given a flat stereo mix that is mostly fine, though the volume levels are low and the music sounds distorted. Dialogue comes through, but I had to crank the volume above my normal range.
If it's not too inconvenient, Rent It. Robert Mitchum stars in One Minute to Zero as an officer in the Korean War, taking on commies and the United Nations and any other sissy that comes his way. Too bad he didn't use the same rough hands on the script, which really needs to man up. This thinly veiled propaganda trudges along through the first two acts, with director Tay Garnett staging unexciting warfare and a romance with Ann Blyth that fizzles like a milky soufflé. That said, the big battle that closes the picture does get the blood flowing, though you might feel as mentally fatigued as the soldiers by the time you finally get there.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.