Inchon is one of those movies like Ishtar, Heaven’s Gate, or Waterworld. Many more people have heard of how dreadful it is than have actually seen it. We haven’t ever seen Heaven’s Gate or Ishtar, but when we finally got around to seeing Waterworld, we discovered that its reputation hid a pretty decent B actioner, poisoned by too large a budget and too much hype. (We’ve argued before that constraints, like tight budgets or rigid formats, often have a salutary effect on artists). Inchon was a war movie about one of the most dramatic reversals in all of military history: a battle that was full of interesting characters, remarkable events, and human striving in its most elemental. Surely someone could make a great movie out of that. Furthermore, no review of Inchon fails to note that its impresario was Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church; we wondered if maybe there was a little bias happening there. (We certainly see that in reviewers’ treatment of Tom Cruise. Cruise is a very, very competent actor, but reviewers seem to hate him for his unusual religion; could a similar bias have influenced Inchon reviews?) So we exposed our fair glazzies to the entire duration of the thing — the original, 2 hour 20 minute long extravaganza.
And… to put it gently… Inchon has got issues. It’s fiercely didactic, diverges enough from reality that it begins with a weasel-worded disclaimer, and the cast, competent enough Korean pros and Hollywood “names,” do the best they can trying to make a leaden script float. It is bad, and it compounds the bad by being long.
A fortune was spent on this movie, but unfortunately for Rev. Moon’s aspiration to creat an epic, it was not spent wisely. You can see some of the decisions in the initial scenes of the 1950 NK invasion of the South, where an endless budget for extras in faux Nork uniforms is offset by the Norks’ arrival astride M48 tanks, and the cruelty of their machine-gunning of civilians is undercut by their choice of murder weapon: the Mark II Sten.
You’ll note that this exemplar of Kim Jong Il’s finest isn’t using the sights. He’s not the only one to open fire, unaided by any attempt to aim. There’s rather a lot of it going around in this film — and it wasn’t all in front of the camera.
Acting and Production
Some of the actors are clearly approaching career twilight. That’s true of Laurence Olivier, but he does an intermittently decent job as Macarthur, given the abominable script he’s stuck with. But it’s even more true of David Janssen, playing a cliché of a reporter. “You never miss a chance to bash him, do you?” another reporter asks Janssen’s character. “Of course not, I’m a journalist!” is the reply. This stomp-three-times Hollywood foreshadowing tells you that (1) Janssen’s bark is worse than his bite, and (2) by the closing credits he’ll be a True Believer in the cult of Macarthur. We refuse to call this a “spoiler”; if you don’t see it coming, you’re watching the Braille Version. (The Janssen subplot doesn’t fully close, perhaps because he was inconsiderate enough to croak during filming).
Even the special effects are pathetic. An attempt to do the old “big-blast-and-launch-a-stuntman” effect, about twenty minutes in, runs afoul of the shoals of timing: the blast has dissipated before the stuntman hits the trampoline. Look, every production shoots a few takes like that, but they aren’t supposed to make it into the final cut. For some inexplicable reason, that one did. It was not alone.
The events of history are tied together by the lives of two couples, who are separated from one another for most of the movie: the first is a Marine officer (Ben Gazzara) whom Macarthur trusts enough to make him his eyes on the ground, and the wife (Jacqueline Bisset) that Gazzara is planning to leave for his Korean girlfriend. The second is a young Korean engaged couple who wind up separated from each other, too, but each colocated with his or her American counterpart. Seventies tough guy Richard Roundtree is believable as Gazzara’s American sergeant; Toshiro Mifune is wedged into a part that seems to have been written to apply the actor to the story, rather than use the actor to advance the story; despite that, Mifune does well.
There are some scenes that are memorable. About 35 minutes in, a series of deftly drawn vignettes set around a bridge that’s necessary for the Norks, equally necessary for the refugees trapped among them, and that the ROK army is determined to blow, bring the terror of a retreat to life.
But for every scene like that, there’s a forlorn signpost to the greatness this movie fell short of. An example is the chaotic ambush of a Nork column by a Korean irregular force clad in civilian costume. There’s no visible leadership, organization, and planning, just berserker action (with, among other things, ZB-26 LMGs, and the omnipresent Stens).
A good score can add a lot to a film. Here, the composer didn’t.
Accuracy and Weapons
We’ve mentioned the wrong guns before. And the wrong tanks, and wrong uniforms, and wrong everything. The aircraft are wrong. A Jeep is hit and blows up, the same pyro shot is used from several angles, and the jeep is a 1960s M151. The Marines’ helmet covers are Vietnam era.
It’s cringeworthy to have an American officer look through binoculars at obvious M47 tanks and says, “T34s At least, that’s what Intelligence says.” Look, intelligence is (and then, was) far from perfect, but it sure has a better batting average than this film’s cast and crew.
Later, Norks guarding a lighthouse are clearly from a better-equipped regiment than the ones at the beginning — they have MP40s instead of Stens. Sheesh. And their QRF has Thompsons. The US and ROK small arms are mostly correct — M1 rifles and carbines, M1919A4s and M2s, M3 Grease Guns and M1 Thompsons. But their combat vehicles are almost all of the wrong period.
All parties on all sides seem completely averse to the use of sights on any weapon. Occasionally, one is raised to several inches below the sightline, but mostly they blaze away from the hip. Fortunately, this movie did not spread that bad technique widely — too few people saw it.
As Douglas Macarthur arrives in Korea in the summer of 1950, so great are his powers that a 1955 Chevrolet is waiting for him. He not only beat Tojo and Kim Il Sung, he can bend time!
And, after making the night landing a key dramatic hinge of the movie, there are no shots of night landing. Only of a 6:33 AM landing on the island of Wolmi-Do, a rare example of an event a six in the morning with the sun, judging from the shadows, straight overhead.
We’ve been brutally critical of CGI in the past, but bad Asian movie CGI would be a signal improvement here.
There is little to no attempt to make the sights and sounds of combat realistic. Explosions are always gasoline fireballs; sounds are right off Acme Effects Disk No. 9.
The bottom line
Inchon is an archetype of the dreadful movie made by intertwining improbable personal relationships with major world events. It can be done well (the classic example being Gone With The Wind), it can be spoofed to perfection (Forrest Gump, although the genius behind that was novelist Winston Groom), and it can be done a lot worse than this (Michael Bay’s unbearable Pearl Harbor). It actually hews fairly close to the path of real events. But in the end, this is one of those where we watched so that you don’t have to.
On the up side, there are plenty of explosions and gunfire. So if that’s all you’re looking for, you can get a good fix. And the conclusion is uplifting, as Moon (and Macarthur) presumably intended.
(The true story of the Inchon invasion including the measures taken to secure the harbor islands is far better, and more dramatic, than the movie. So is the true story of Douglas Macarthur, who remains a greater figure — and a greater engima — than any of the many movies portray him).
For more information
These sites relate to this particular film.
- Amazon.com DVD page:
This movie is not available on DVD.
- IMDB page:
- IMFDB page:
It hasn’t got one of these, either.
- Rotten Tomatoes review page:
Well… it outscored Jaws II. There is that.
- Wikipedia page: