HOLD BACK THE NIGHT, one of at least 13 war movies crowding screens in 1956, stars John Payne as a Marine officer fighting two battles, one to stay alive, another to keep a promise. The more important and pressing one is in trying to stay alive and keep his company from being wiped out during a battle in the Korean War. The secondary fight is a plot device to frame the story–he carries a bottle of scotch with him, given to him by his girlfriend (Mona Freeman) a decade back in WW2, told to save it for “a special occasion“.
The plot gimmick gets its due via flashbacks, including a dalliance with another gal in Australia (Audrey Dalton, not bothering with an accent). The up front story is a ton of action, set in the Marines famous 17-day-long ‘fighting retreat’ from the Chosin Reservoir in November, 1950, under continual attack from outnumbering Chinese troops.
Payne gives an excellent performance in both the sudsy flashback stuff and the mostly well-done action sequences. He’s backed by Peter Graves and Chuck Connors, busily on their way up in long careers. Experienced handling Marine Corps material, thanks to Sands Of Iwo Jima, old-timer Allan Dwan directed; he and his 2nd-unit man (Don Torpin, credit where due), with good assist from the sound effects crew, give the combat sufficient excitement. Marred only by some occasional rear-projection shots, the desperate fighting is shown as bleak and serious rather than a dopey rah-rah recruiting tool. To simulate the hills and snows of Korea, filming was done in the California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. *
Forgotten (like the misery of the Korean War) film is a not bad addition to the grim-and-bear-it ranks of The Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets!, Retreat Hell! and Pork Chop Hill. I remember seeing it a couple times on TV as a kid, thinking the romance stuff was sappy and action ‘neat’. Looking at it again, nearly six decades later, childhood’s verdict stands.
The script by Walter Doniger and John C. Higgins was based on war correspondent Pat Frank’s novel. With Robert Nichols and Robert Easton. 80 minutes.**
* The reliable John Payne was busy in ’56, with four films, including director Dwan’s noir favorite Slightly Scarlet. Payne, Graves and Connors swapped features for TV and jeeps for horses, with respectively, The Restless Gun, Fury and The Rifleman.
** Pat Franks 1951 book was based on some of what he saw as a war correspondent. Back in 1946 he’d come up with “Mr. Adam”, where a nuclear accident causes worldwide male sterility. It sold 2,000,000 copies. He wrote a well-received nuclear apocalypse novel “Alas, Babylon”. On the Cold War fear front in 1962, Franks contributed “How to Survive the H-Bomb…and Why”. Considering the aftermath, “Why, indeed?”
Speaking of Cold War thought waves—as kids, per the pervasive ‘Commie’ threat, the neighborhood pals and I would “play Korea” in a nearby field, preferably when it snowed, because, well…’Korea’. Traveling as an adult, flying over (South) Korea, looking at the endless succession of rugged hills, all I could think of was what terrible terrain it would be to fight on. If most Americans know little of anything about the unpopular, un-won Korean War, it’s also more than damning that hardly any have given a passing thought to what those three terrible years did to the people of Korea. Past meets Prologue, what with a promised War With China salivating on the apocalyptic horizon. From the brain trust that brought you Afghanistan and Iraq—only with more hills, and a few more opponents.