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Korean War in Color
2002 / Color / 1:37 /208 min. (with extras) / Street Date February 12, 2002 / $24.99
Written by Chris Cassel
Produced by Vincent Kralyevich, Chris Cassel, Scott Miller, Ted Poole

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The story of the Korean War is told through color newsfilm and the home movies of soldiers in the conflict. After the massive invasion of South Korea by North Korea in 1950 comes MacArthur's invasion at Inchon; from then on it's two more years of seesawing battle fronts as the Red Chinese enter the war and the struggle becomes a bitter stalemate at the negotiation table. What's mostly seen here is the fighting on the ground and the kinds of living conditions endured by the American forces.

The draw for a show entitled Korean War in Color is obvious, and this visually pleasing but underproduced docu does make good on its promise of authentic Korean war action, wall-to-wall and in color.

The sources drawn from are combat camera and other newsreel-type footage. There are also home movies shot by soldiers. The ground combat gets the majority of the screen time; there's very little shown of the air war, unless you count the gunnery camera footage where rockets and tracers blast away at railroads and power plants.

Where Korean War in Color falls short is tying all this together. A slipshod narration script tries to tell the entire tale of the 3-year war, and has a hard time of it. There's so little setup, that after the initial attack by the North Koreans, it's easy to think this was just an American fight. When the UN is finally mentioned, we hear unhappy mistakes such as, "Meanwhile, back with the UN in Washington ..." The facts of the Inchon invasion are well-covered, as are the several military commanders and General MacArthur, but the docu gives us little insight on the war, preferring to stick to the basic facts. It's really a collection of stock footage, arranged with a narration to resemble a docu.

The show is arranged in fifteen modular chapters reminiscent of Reality Television's low-attention-span tendency to recap things every eight minutes or so. There's also an exploitative tone that cheapens the picture, especially at the beginning when we're treated to a mass execution of Northern infiltrators by the South. If the edited version in the show isn't gory enough, we can see it all in the disc's special features. In this context, the execution appears to be the pretext for the invasion. Laterm when we're shown a bombed-out bridge, the narrator is quick to assure us that hundreds of people perished when the span was blown up, as if apologizing for not having color footage of the event.

The Korean war was a terrible slaughter, with the same territory being fought over as many as 3 times as battle lines swept back and forth across the length of the country. This depressing futility, and the hardships suffered by the American soldiers, the docu conveys very well. Not helping much are the animated map graphics, which turn Korea into a meaningless jumble of mountain ranges (which maybe it is). Confidence isn't bolstered by one map that gives the same name to two cities (?) and another graphic in which two rivers are shown to cross each other.

Korean War in Color also has a problem shared by other dramatized war docus, in that there's a lot of unattributed footage used to illustrate specific campaigns. We have to take it on faith that shots aren't staged, or that battle footage isn't being used indiscriminately. After shots of troops in heavy winter clothing are shown huddling in the snow, we're told of a grueling winter advance. But the soldiers we're shown aren't wearing winter gear, and the weather doesn't look nearly as bad as it did a moment before.

Finally, the script tries to have it both ways politically. The basic conflict is presented without prejudice, but the language and descriptions laud the heroic and 'meaningful' sacrifice of the Allied forces while characterizing the North Koreans and Red Chinese as a faceless horde. No doubt that's how they appeared to the soldier on the ground, but we've heard that a million times before and Korean War in Color doesn't show us anything about the enemy, except some stock footage of Red Chinese troops on maneuvers, and their stubborn negotiators.

The best thing here is the raw footage of American soldiers on the ground - showing how they lived, what they wore and the equipment they used. But the simplified script hurts the show even when it's doing well. A segment on the MASH medical units would be good, if it didn't treat the audience like ninnies by repeatedly referring to the television show.

Goldhil's DVD of Korean War in Color is a bust as a documentary, but rather good as a resource for footage. The transfer and encoding of the diverse source film is reasonably good. Other production values don't measure up. The sound mix is poor. The music level often overwhelms the voiceover track, which is marred by frequent jumps in volume and EQ. A heavy echo is placed on the annoyingly false dramatic readings of 'soldier's letters from the front'. They pop up frequently, mimicking the miniseries The Civil War (said to be coming out this fall).

Adding to the resource value are a host of extra newsreel-based clips and montages. A compilation of aerial gunnery camera footage will appeal mostly to trigger-happy ordinance enthusiasts, but there's a hefty selection of clips of Marilyn Monroe's USO tour, some bonus newsreels with glaring headlines, short bios on Truman, MacArthur and Eisenhower, and a photo slide show. A portion of a television appearance by Senator Joe McCarthy is presented as well. These and a section of soldier's home movies are amateur in origin but fascinating in their 'found object' truthfulness. Of course, the majority of the extra newsreel footage is not in color.

The package text claiming 'never before seen Declassified Footage' might raise expectations of controversial or secret subject matter, that the DVD doesn't fulfill. But we're so used to claims like this, it's hardly worth mentioning.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Korean War in Color rates:
Movie: Fair (very good for visual reference)
Video: Good
Sound: Fair
Supplements: Marilyn Monroe newsreels, Soldier's home movies, Gun Camera Compilation, The Korean War Veteran's memorial, Video Biographies of Truman, MacArthur and Eisenhower, Photo slide show
Packaging: Amaray case
Reviewed: July 20, 2002

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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