Oct 242013

The RackRating: ★★☆☆☆

MGM, 1956, 100 minutes
Cast: Paul Newman, Wendell Corey, Walter Pigeon, Edmund O’Brien, Anne Francis, and Lee Marvin
Screenplay: Stewart Stern
Based on the telelay by Rod Serling
Producer: Arthur M. Loew, Jr.
Director: Arnold Laven

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, so the 38th Parallel was selected as the dividing line between the Russian and American occupation forces. The active 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. Aware that Rhee would provoke a war if permitted, the United States had refused to provide the ROK army with planes, tanks and artillery. However, Stalin approved Kim’s invasion plan, supplying the North Koreans with generous quantities of planes, tanks and artillery.

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. President Harry Truman won the support of the United Nations for the defense of South Korea, assigning the military response to General Douglas MacArthur, commander of the American occupation forces in Japan, but the NKPA had gained control of all of Korea by August except for a small perimeter around the port of Pusan. 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. After a series of Chinese offensives and American counter-offensives, the lines had stabilized near the 38th Parallel by mid-summer 1951. The negotiations dragged on until mid-1953 because the Chinese and NKPA would not accept the right of Chinese and North Korean PoWs in UN custody to refuse repatriation to their home countries.

Plot Summary

Returning home after spending two years in a PoW camp, Captain Edward Hall Jr. (Paul Newman) is in rough shape, both emotionally and physically, but he receives little emotional support from his family. His father, Colonel Edward Hall, Sr. (Walter Pidgeon), is uncomfortable expressing emotion, and Aggie Hall (Anne Francis), his sister-in-law, tries to be cheerful but can barely hide her resentment that he survived when her husband did not. Unknown to his family, Hall is being investigated for a court martial for collaboration with the enemy, and is charged immediately after being released from the hospital.

Testimony from witnesses reveals that Hall gave lectures on behalf of the Chinese and wrote messages asking his fellow soldiers to surrender. Captain John Miller (Lee Marvin)’s testimony is especially damning since he was head of an escape group that was captured because Hall had informed on them. The defence attorney, Lt. Colonel Frank Wasnick (Edmund O’Brien), launches a spirited counterattack, providing examples of Hall’s physical courage, and explaining that he had been promoted from lieutenant to captain and received a silver star before he was captured. Supported by Aggie, who urges him to defend himself, Hall gives his version of the events presented by the witnesses. Figuring out that he had only pretended to collaborate in order to win better treatment for other PoWs, the Chinese threw him in solitary confinement for six months, but he only broke when he learned that his brother had been killed. Wasnick argues that Hall was one of the first victims of a new type of mental torture where the Chinese deliberately broke down the soldiers and denied them solidarity. Unlike the other officers, Hall was not physically tortured, he was mentally tortured. Although found guilty, he has reconciled with his father.

Historical Accuracy

On the surface, the debate is whether Hall was broken or allowed himself to be broken, but the main purpose of the film is to reinforce the idea that an insignificant number of American PoWs collaborated. Moreover, the few who did collaborate did so because they had been subjected to brainwashing by the Chinese, not because they sought better treatment or personal gain. The script was written to ensure approval by the military censors, therefore the number of collaborators is a tiny fraction of the real number. Hall is only one of the forty cases that were left after hundreds had been investigated, and he was broken after months of psychological warfare. Initially doubtful, Major Sam Moulton (Wendell Corey), the prosecutor, only agrees to investigate after he sees the huge pile of testimony from fellow prisoners. Most important, Hall only broke because his father never hugged him, thus implying that none of the PoWs really betrayed their nation or were even selfish. Emotionally damaged, they were easy prey for the Chinese.

Adopting a very sterilized view of the real situation, The Rack whitewashes the genuine problem of large-scale collaboration among American PoWs during the Korean War. The defence attorney’s claim that the Chinese had deliberately denied the prisoners solidarity is correct. Ignoring the Geneva Convention with its precise rules for the treatment of prisoners, the Chinese employed the same crude indoctrination techniques that had proven so successful with Nationalist troops during the civil war. The prisoners’ ragged clothes were replaced with Chinese uniforms to weaken their identity as soldiers, and they were divided into platoons with Chinese-appointed leaders. Any sign of listening to their own officers or NCOs would be punished. NCOs or officers who refused to recognize Chinese authority would receive solitary confinement. This approach produced negligible results with western PoWs, since it was obvious that western society offered a better life than the poverty of Chinese soldiers. However, the situation did cause many men to collaborate in the hope of better conditions.

The key issue is the number of cases. Unlike the fictional forty in the movie, the US army determined that roughly one in seven of all American PoWs was guilty of serious collaboration. Furthermore, twenty-one Americans refused to be repatriated at the end of the war. Instead of shedding light on an embarrassing but real problem, the movie avoided controversy, and reassured complacent audiences that everything was all right.


Comparisons with Time Limit (1957) are hard to avoid, since both movies involve the court-martial of an American officer accused of collaboration. However, Time Limit is a much superior film, and a much more honest film, even though it was made only a year later.

Still struggling to get his career started, Newman threw himself into the role, working closely with the screenwriter to build his character. There is no denying the intensity of Newman’s performance, but the emphasis on the character’s daddy issues is hard to take. Learning that the charge of collaboration against Hall is true, his father screams that he wishes that he had died. Hall responds that he sold his soul for a dirty blanket and three hours of sleep. The exchange sounds powerful, but Newman acts more like a rebellious teenager, than a war veteran.

The film is not that great but the ending is a bit surprising.

  • the war movie buff

    I can add that of the 21 Americans who refused repatriation, all but a couple eventually returned to the U.S.
    I hate to say this, but the Army we sent to Korea was ripe for collaborating in exchange for better treatment. To go from Japanese occupation duty to a Chinese prison camp was more extreme than any equivalent I can think of from any other American war. Of course, you could not reference this in a movie made in the 50s.
    Does the movie push the brainwashing myth?
    That is a good cast – the movie should have been better.
    I need to watch this. I had forgotten it existed.

    • historyonfilm

      Yeah, it was weird, the Chinese basically ignored them after they had the press conference, as if they did not know what to do with them.
      I totally agree that a movie is needed to show how unprepared the soldiers occupying Japan were for war in Korea. This would involve criticizing MacArthur, who deserves the criticism.
      No, there is no brainwashing like in the Manchurian Candidate. Instead, the Chinese used a combination of emotional and physical torture to basically break him.
      The cast was good, no doubt, but I am realizing that I don’t like Newman in many of his early roles, he kept playing youthful rebels in the James Dean style, but he was 30, so it is strange.