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Thursday, March 25, 2010

Peck and Milestone Back In Uniform

Pretty much all the major stars had their own production companies in the fifties. It saved them taxes and offered a measure of control over work they did. Only the biggest names needed apply, however, of which Gregory Peck was one. He started Melville Productions in 1956 and began developing properties. Ones most promising lured companies to gamble on partnership, the first being United Artists, a distributor recently risen high in the industry for backing star ventures. Realizing profits from such boutique filmmaking was as uncertain as dice the major studios were throwing. With actors now seeing paydays out of monies realized, there was uncharacteristic deference to budget. They finally had to take responsibility for dollars spent on their vehicles. Peck was experienced enough to realize he’d have to rely on writers and producers with know-how at picture making. His principal ally was Sy Bartlett, who’d written Twelve O’Clock High and done a little producing besides. They purchased in August 1957 a well-received account of a Korean War incident by retired general S.L.A. Marshall. Pork Chop Hill described a bloody engagement minus clarity as to winner and loser. Peck saw the time was right to eschew heroics and reveal combat as the confused and pointless enterprise that our Korean "police action" suggested it was. He also relished opportunity to make or appear in a great film --- the kind that shows every year or so at New York’s Museum Of Modern Art or is hailed as a great film the world around. Toward that end, he hired Lewis Milestone to direct Pork Chop Hill plus two more projects to come. The pic would have to be done cut-rate to avoid red ink, as the star recognized its commercial limitations. Peck wrote in a memo that if Pork Chop Hill couldn’t be finished for $1.3 million, it should not be made at all.

Star/producer sought realism for his war story, but shrank from playing an uncertain lead. Marshall had written that the officer leading the Pork Chop offensive, Captain Joseph G. Clemons, did not come seasoned to that real-life battlefield, an aspect of the event Milestone found compelling and wanted to dramatize. Peck had an image to protect, however, and knew commercial perils of vacillating at command. Besides, the still active army captain he was playing had been assigned technical advisor by a cooperative Pentagon and Peck realized the folly of insulting him. Milestone lacked the juice to win a creative contest with his high profile producer and a military establishment already giving quarter beyond accustomed limits as to how American forces were portrayed. Despite Peck’s artistic ambitions, there would be no All Quiet On The Western Front emerging from this venture. Then why engage Milestone to direct? He’d been more or less inactive as a studio helmsman for several years, lately reduced to TV episode work and at least one car commercial. Still, no director had derived more prestige from a single accomplishment than Milestone did for All Quiet. That was nearly thirty years before, but his was an acknowledged classic in frequent circulation since and an ongoing fixture at Peck's cherished Museum Of Modern Art. Milestone was the lucky charm studios hung on combat subjects keyed to critical plaudits. His name alone assured serious consideration for Edge Of Darkness, The North Star, The Purple Heart, A Walk In the Sun, and Halls Of Montezuma. Milestone’s idea this time was to cut back and forth between fighting at Pork Chop and armistice talks at nearby Panmunjom, the suspense deriving from whether or not peace would be declared before inadequate troops on the hill were wiped out. That sounded like an effective suspense device, except for the fact that it delayed Gregory Peck’s entrance into the narrative by a good (or bad, depending on who you talked to) twenty minutes.

The last thing Peck wanted was a conventional war movie, even as market realities pushed him toward just that. Advisors were aplenty, and second-guessing was rife. According to Milestone, the loudest kibitzing came from the star’s wife. She was for lopping off, according to Milestone, exposition that set up Korea’s conflict from the Red Chinese side. Mrs. Peck’s time observing the editing process convinced her that whatever took place prior to Greg’s coming on the screen was surplusage. Milestone cited this influence as ruination of his efforts: I didn’t agree with the way Mr. Gregory Peck wanted to edit it, so I simply walked out and he edited it the way he saw fit. The director would maintain that Pork Chop Hill had been cut with a dull axe. For his part, the star-producer, along with partners Sy Bartlett and writer James Webb, found Milestone’s version a bit self-conscious and arty. Their tightening up brought the film from nearly two hours down to 97 minutes. Milestone was not surprisingly relieved of his obligation to direct two more features for Melville Productions. A hazard of independent producing was the clash of egos that often derailed creative collaborations. Gregory Peck had fallen out months before with William Wyler on The Big Country. They wouldn’t speak for several years after, and never worked together again. Maybe such personalities needed supervising front offices to mediate and apply discipline when needed. More than a few independent projects came unglued thanks to quarrelling among participants. Peck’s experience was in fact more typical than uncommon during that period when artists were guiding their own filmic output.

United Artists set a 1959 Memorial Day opening for Pork Chop Hill. Their greater effort, however, was focused on the summer’s hoped-for blockbuster The Horse Soldiers, and far more trade support went to that. Still there was a Roxy playdate in New York to follow big grosser Imitation Of Life (I was intrigued to find that the immortal Goofers, of Bop Girl Goes Calypso fame, headlined Pork Chop’s accompanying stage revue). Peck made himself available to introduce and narrate a theatrical trailer, and announced his intent to do a Civil War film with the director/producer team of Stanley Kubrick and James B. Harris, having been impressed by their then-recent Paths Of Glory. Critical reception for Pork Chop Hill was overall very good. Variety thought it something new and special among war stories, while the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther applauded novel elements, but soon enough it was clear the public wasn’t buying. Could it have been black-and-white’s curse? Exhibitors thought so. Peck admitted in a 1961 interview that Pork Chop Hill lacked a relentless surge of forward movement needed to put over a boxoffice success, and acknowledged as well the film’s dearth of appeal to women in the audience. Domestic rentals stopped at $1.845,962 million, with foreign bringing $1.737,571. As the picture’s final cost had climbed to $1.75 million, Pork Chop Hill would have been, at best, a barely break-even proposition.

Fighting and dying uselessly on battlefields generated bitter enough headlines in newspapers. Buying tickets to movies enacting it made for bad commercial medicine. To say that Pork Chop Hill was A Name That Has Come To Mean Heroism and Greatness (as with the ad at top) was courting disappointment and word-of-mouth backlash. People didn’t go to theatres to see America lose wars. Pork Chop Hill’s believable march toward final reel defeat was not served well by a last-minute rescue more the device of earlier filmmakers less committed to truth. Korea had been a mess without satisfactory resolution and Hollywood never trafficked well in ambiguity over who came off the victor. Newer and more diabolical devices of war made for arresting highlights though, and reviewers noticed. A loudspeaker facing the battlefield allows the Red Chinese to undermine troop morale with non-stop attempts at brainwashing, something that evidently went on during the Korea conflict but had so far not been utilized in films. It’s a spooky effect reminiscent of wounded soldiers crying for help in Objective, Burma and Sands Of Iwo Jima that turn out to be Japanese laying in wait for would-be rescuers. The idea of politics as impediment to victory is inherently frustrating to audiences there to see action, another commercial reality that may have entered into Melville’s decision to abandon director Milestone’s original concept of crosscutting between Panmunjom and Pork Chop. The film appears critical of American foreign policy on the one hand, and supportive of hamstrung warring on the other. Because of what they did, millions live in freedom today, says reassuring narrator Peck at the fadeout, but Pork Chop Hill’s overall message is a mixed one at best. We see virtually no Koreans from the North or South. Attackers are at all times the Red Chinese. Milestone’s way with battle scenes is exemplary, his sure hand at staging carnage being Pork Chop Hill’s outstanding feature. War films find me with uncanny accuracy, said the director; I don’t go seeking them.

Exhibition worked out a crafty stunt for selling Pork Chop Hill. I found it applied in nearby Winston-Salem and at our own Liberty Theatre (ads shown here). "Vets of Pork Chop" were invited in both instances to attend the show as guests of the theatre, their "official identification" good for a pair of free ducats. Sounded like a good and generous gesture, until I read that of the 135 combatants on Pork Chop, only 28 survived. What were chances of any of these showing up at the Liberty or Carolina? Pork Chop Hill’s afterlife was spent mostly on television. The film became part of a fifteen-title package sold by United Artists to ABC in January 1962. The network looked to compete with NBC’s successful primetime Saturday movies with its own Sunday night counterpart. Features would replace two struggling ABC series, Bus Stop and Adventures In Paradise, beginning April 8, 1962. Included among the initial group from UA was Witness For The Prosecution, I Want To Live, Man Of The West, and for broadcast on April 29, Pork Chop Hill. It was a fast track from there to syndication as part of UA’s Showcase Of The 60’s package, announced three months later for availability in the Fall.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon sent the following terrific anecdote about an encounter he had with Gregory Peck:

I actually met Peck, very briefly, in 1981. The guy who was then in charge of the much-shrunken "makeup department" (barely meriting that description by that point in time, vs. the glory days----and I hasten to add that today, no major studio has any sort of makeup department remaining whatsoever, to the best of my knowledge) rang me up to come over and consult on a project Peck would be doing for television. It would be "The Blue and the Gray", and this most Lincolnesque of stars was finally going to actually play Lincoln, himself. I was immediately intrigued, and of course awed to think I might meet a star of the fullest magnitude from the Golden Age. I had a book that was then less than a year old of every known photograph of Lincoln, from the collection of a member of the fabulously rich Mellon family. I brought that along with me. Waiting in the makeup department, Peck finally arrived. I remember he was dressed in a rather drab, dumpy outfit, certainly not turned out to impress. The famous sculptured features were by that time fleshed out and of course age-appropriate, and his hair was somewhat thin, salt and pepper with a bit more salt than pepper, and apparently fine-textured and clinging flatly to his head. The once flashing eyes were by this time hooded with age, as well. He was very subdued and did not extend himself, as the saying goes, with a great deal of bonhomie. It was all low-key and strictly business. Not to say he was discourteous, certainly not. I showed him the book, and he was immediately more interested than he'd seemed initially to be there at all. He paged through it and made little comments in reaction to seeing certain things Lincoln was seen wearing, such as a pocket watch, for example, or a necktie, etc. He said "we" must get these pictures to the wardrobe and property people. It was a funny conversation to take place among makeup people in a makeup department! Very little was said about makeup at all, per se. I personally felt that Peck, more than almost any other actor (certainly of his stature and history in the business), already brought 'Lincoln' to the party with his natural features. In the event, as they like to say in England, I could not be involved with this project, much to my regret. I had to (I say it like it was some sort of penalty!) go up to ILM to perform some post-production work on "Poltergeist" (which, like a great portion of my PRE-production work on the film, did not make it into the final cut.) A friend of mine wound up doing the 'lab work' on the makeup (the preparation of a few prosthetic things, and their later application.) He told me that Peck was gracious to work with, and even had him out to his house once or twice. I have to say that there was a lovely, late documentary done about Peck while he was still with us, produced by his adoring daughter (by the lovely second wife, Veronique.) Peck seems mellow and warm through most of it, and puts his best foot forward-----a nice way for him to be remembered. This is not to say that he was without compexity, for he was human, and I'm sure he was. For instance, I also remember reading somewhere that Peck used to go out with certain Hollywood actors who were pretty heavy drinkers, with Dana Andrews coming to mind for one. Perhaps he indulged, too----but again, I don't ever remember reading or hearing that Peck overindulged in that area, the way you certainly do about some.

5:16 PM  
Blogger Dugan said...

I've always wondered why "Pork Chop Hill" seemed like such a schizophrenic film. Milestone was a very hard luck director when it came to being associated with good stories. I would have to say that "Pork Chop Hill", "Men in War" and "The Steel Helmet" are probably the best of the Korean War films made around that time period although each has it's problems.

Nothing against Peck, but even more than John Wayne, Peck always played Peck which I think was one of the frustrations Hitchcock had with him.

7:28 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Something I hadn't thought about in years: When I was in junior high school, my best pal Mike's mother told me that before Mike was born, in the late '40s, she had worked as a secretary at Selznick International Pictures. I remember a few of her anecdotes: for example, she said Gregory Peck was a wonderful guy, a down-to-earth "regular Joe." She also mentioned reversing course once on the studio lot to avoid crossing paths with Sydney Greenstreet (nothing personal, she was just that frightened and intimidated by his screen persona); she talked about one Christmas helping Alida Valli wrap presents for the kids in her home town back in Italy, recalling that Valli was one of the warmest, sweetest people she ever met. If she ever told me anything about Selznick himself, or Hitchcock, or Jennifer Jones, or -- oh, I could go on, but why torture myself? Anyhow, if she did, I don't remember it. For nearly 50 years I've been kicking myself that I didn't listen more closely or ask questions. Now, thanks to Craig Reardon's anecdote, I've just done it again.

3:26 PM  

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