Jul 182013

Battle CircusRating: ★★½☆☆

MGM, 1953, 90 minutes
Cast: Humphrey Bogart, June Allyson, Keenan Wynn, and Robert Keith
Screenplay: Richard Brooks
Based on a story by: Allen Rivkin and Laura Kerr
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Director: Richard Brooks

Historical Background

The end of WWII had left the United States and the Soviet Union as the two global superpowers, and Korea, a Japanese protectorate, was far down their respective lists of priorities. Pre-occupied with imposing control on Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union simply wanted to ensure that Americans troops were not stationed near its borders, so the 38th Parallel was selected as the dividing line between the Russian and American occupation forces. The support of the American occupation forces ensured that American-educated Syngman Rhee was elected president of the Republic of Korea (ROK). Kim Sung-il, who had served with the Red Army during WWII, became the Soviets’ candidate in North Korea. Both Rhee and Kim wanted to reunify Korea by force and believed that the other side would fall easily. Aware that Rhee would provoke a war if permitted, the United States refused to provide the ROK army with planes and tanks. However, Stalin approved Kim’s invasion plan, supplying the North Koreans with generous quantities of planes and tanks.

When the North Korean People’s Army (NKPA) crossed the border on June 25, 1950, its large, well-trained army steamrolled through the unprepared ROK forces, starting the Korean War. Believing that remaining neutral would be interpreted as weakness by the Soviets, President Harry Truman won the support of the United Nations (UN) for the defense of South Korea, assigning the military response to General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the American occupation forces in Japan. American reinforcements were sent piecemeal, so the NKPA had gained control of all of Korea except for a small perimeter around the port of Pusan by August. The NKPA had already burned itself out with repeated frontal attacks when an amphibious landing at Inchon caught the North Koreans completely by surprise. Seoul was recaptured on September 25, and the NKPA began to disintegrate. Deciding to reunify Korea by force, an overconfident MacArthur dismissed China’s warning that it would not permit American troops near the Yalu River, the border between China and North Korea. The entry of hundreds of thousands of Chinese ‘volunteers’ into Korea in late November transformed the war.

Plot Summary

Several new nurses, including Lieutenant Ruth McGara (June Allyson), arrive at the 66th MASH mobile field hospital, and she meets Major Jed Webbe (Humphrey Bogart) after he saves her life when an enemy plane strafes the camp. The unit moves every few days, following the ever-shifting front, but each new camp is set up with military precision. The whole process of packing up equipment, taking down tents and putting them into trucks, is supervised by Sergeant Orvil Statt (Keenan Wynn), who used to work for Barnum and Baileys. Although a good leader and an excellent doctor, Webbe hits on all of the nurses, and the more experienced ones know his routine by heart. The advances continue until McGara falls in love and mentions marriage, but he is bitter and does not believe in love. Believing that Webbe can change, and encouraged by Colonel Hilary Walters (Robert Keith), the commanding officer, McGara persists. Unfortunately, a surprise enemy offensive causes the unit to move through Chinese-held territory, and the couple are separated during the chaos.

Historical Accuracy

Intended as a tribute to the doctors and nurses who staffed the MASH hospitals, the movie presents the rough conditions they faced, including rain that turns the roads into mud, near-typhoon winds that threaten to blow down the tents and the constant need for more blood, as well as snipers outside the perimeter. The movie’s title Battle Circus refers to the hospital’s ability to pack up and move like a circus. The attention to detail is the movie’s strong point, which is unsurprising since the technical adviser had commanded one of the first MASH units in Korea, and they filmed near the US training base for MASH units.

It is a patriotic film, and the American involvement in the Korean War is never questioned, but Webbe is worn down, tired of never getting caught up with the wounded. At one point, he complains that three world wars in a generation is too much. Actually, this is the first film that I have encountered that describes the Korean War as a world war.

Like far too many American films, the only Koreans shown are refugees, not soldiers. However, the Korean refugees are treated well. When a soldier calls the refugees gooks, he is told off by Sergeant Statt.


There are people in the world who enjoy a performance by June Allyson. I am not one of them. I make no criticism of her worth as a human being, but her screen persona is torture to watch, so I dread reviewing any movie with her in the cast. Fortunately, she was less annoying than usual. Allyson had a well-earned reputation in Hollywood for her ability to cry on demand, and that ability is frequently employed in the film. The rest of the cast are solid, especially Robert Keith and Keenan Wynn, but it is Bogart’s film.

The movie would actually be enjoyable except that the romance between Webbe and McGara dominates the script. They keep having weird encounters that are supposed to be funny, but the attempts at slapstick fall flat. There is a reason why this is not one of Bogart’s better-known films, but his sleazy routine is pretty entertaining. In fact, the movie is a bit risque for 1953. One of the older nurses advises McGara that it is okay that Webbe is married, since experienced drivers are better. The script hints that they had sex one night because they wake up in each others’ arms, but still with their uniforms on. It was 1953 after all.

It may seem strange that he does not run to her when they are finally re-united, but it is not sexist. BOGIE DOESN’T RUN.

The impressive detail ensures that the film is better than expected, even though tepid would be the kindest description of the romance.

  • the war movie buff

    I watched this recently and was not impressed. The romance is terrible and Allyson is not up to playing opposite Bogart. I cringed several times. Bogart was too old to be playing a wolf.
    If it wasn’t for MASH, you could argue that at least it gave some recognition to the medical corps in Korea. Watching this and then watching MASH is as good as it gets for showing how far war movies came from 1953 to 1970.
    I think the reference to a third world war is referring to the Cold War. I had no idea they were making that reference as early as 1953, however. I’ve seen it a few times recently. Personally I think it is a stretch.

    • historyonfilm

      Yep, it was difficult to watch. I was surprised about the World War Three reference as well, haven’t really come across it before. In fact, I had always thought the Korean War was called the forgotten war, and was even ignored at the time.

      • the war movie buff

        It certainly is called the “Forgotten War” and that is mainly referring to the public’s disdain for it. It is tempting to say that is because we lost, but we didn’t. Plus we definitely lost in Vietnam and you would not say that war was forgotten (although it took Hollywood a while to warm to it). I theorize the Korean War was “forgotten” because of the ambiguous ending. You can’t cheer or groan. Nothing visceral. However, there are a surprising number of movies about it, but the opposite of Vietnam in that most came out either during the war or shortly after.

        • historyonfilm

          It certainly has been overshadowed by the Vietnam War but I think that part of the problem is that there was never a movie about the Korean War comparable to Platoon or Full Metal Jacket, and as you point out, most of the movies came out at the time or shortly after. I thought that something would be made of the 60th anniversary but nothing happened.