Archive for February 28, 2021

SHAKO: Black History Month — African Americans in War Movies Part II

An Additional Four Movies to explore how Hollywood changed in its treatment of black actors and black history in films about war and life in the military.

RED BALL EXPRESS (Universal Pictures, 1952)

This film is on this list for all the wrong reasons. Puportedly, it’s the story of one of the little known Army operations involving a great many black soldiers during World War II, the eponymous Red Ball Express.” But there aren’t many blacks in the film.

Three months after D-Day, it was hard to supply Gen. George Patton’s hard-charging Third Army which was advancing as much as 80 miles a week. French railroads, as well as highways and bridges had been wrecked by Allied bombing. The only open seaport was in Normandy, far from the front.

To meet the need, thousands of trucks and hundreds of soldiers to drive them were pressed into service to deliver food, fuel, ammunition and other supplies to the front-line troops. The truck convoys had a dedicated route marked by round red signs — red balls — an old railroad term for high priority freight trains.

Almost 75 percent of Red Ball Express drivers were African Americans, who dealt with breakdowns, accidents, land mines, air attacks, bad roads and exhaustion on their 57-hour round trips.

But it’s hard to find many black actors in the movie. One of the few was a young Sidney Poitier (second from left in photo above) in just his third motion picture. Poitier’s character, Private Robertson, has a run-in with his C.O. and practically disappears for the rest of the movie. Nearly all the heroics are performed by white soldiers in the movie.

In a 1979 symposium at UCLA, the director, Bud Boetticher, revealed that the Defense Department pressured Universal Pictures to alter its portrayal of the tense race relations that existed at the time and to emphasize an upbeat, positive spirit, according to the IMBd website. Commenting on the studio’s whitewashing of history, Boetticher said, “The army wouldn’t let us tell the truth about the black troops because the government figured they were expendable. Our government didn’t want to admit they were kamikaze pilots. They figured if one out of ten trucks got through, they’d save Patton and his tanks.”

That sounds plausible when you see the official 1945 Army short film about the Red Ball Express, “Rolling to the Rhine,”. It only shows black drivers taking a break smoking and drinking coffee. This contemporary footage, which includes much of what’s shown in “Rolling to the Rhine,” shows blacks loading, driving and repairing trucks.

By The Way: Actor James Edwards (“Home of the Brave” and “The Steel Helmet’) was originally cast in the role of Robertson, but was fired during production when he refused to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee. He was replaced by Poitier, according to IMDb.

PORK CHOP HILL (United Artists, 1959)

While peace talks are underway at Panmunjom to end the Korean War, reluctant U.S. troops fight to retake a hill from Communist Chinese forces and then hold on to it despite rising casualties, in this film based on actual events. Directed by veteran war film maker Lewis Milestone (1930’s Best Picture Oscar winner “All Quiet on the Western Front” and “A Walk in the Sun” from 1945), racial tensions in the recently desegregated U.S. Army are a key element in the film.

Instead of white bigotry against Soldiers of color, the focus in “Pork Chop Hill” is on a Black soldier, Franklin, played by Woody Strode (in the photo above on the right), who doesn’t want to die fighting for Korea when he’s sure he wouldn’t die for the squalid conditions he lives in back home. After two confrontations, his company commander orders another Black Soldier, Corporal Jurgens (the ubiquitous James Edwards, same photo on the left), to keep an eye on Franklin and shoot him if he refuses to fight. A verbal confrontation between the two black men is equally tense.

SERGEANT RUTLEDGE (Warner Brothers, 1960)

This movie is the only one that strays from wars in the 20th Century, but it’s one of the first films, if not the first, to portray the black Buffalo Soldiers of the Old West. Directed by legendary film maker John Ford. It’s part Western, part crime thriller, part courtroom drama and part social justice advocacy.  

Woody Strode is Sergeant Braxton Rutledge, the black 1st Sergeant of the 9th Cavalry in the Jim Crow Army. At an Arizona Army post in the early 1880s, he is being tried by a court martial for the rape and murder of a white girl as well as for the murder of the girl’s father, who was the fort’s commanding officer. The story of these events is told in several flashbacks.

Strode gives a memorable performance as a Top Soldier who loves his regiment and fellow black troopers but knows he can’t get a fair trial because he’s in the worst kind of trouble a black man can get in — “white woman trouble.” While the film is another paean to the U.S. cavalry and an attempt at a fair telling of the heroism and professionalism of its black soldiers, this trailer from Warner Bros. makes it look more like a lurid thriller.


ALL THE YOUNG MEN (Columbia, 1960)

This Korean War drama is much like some of the others listed before, a small group of Marines must hold a farmhouse that controls a valley their battalion will pass through, despite relentless enemy attacks.

What sets it apart is that it takes place in winter (filmed in Glacier National Park) and the sergeant in charge is black. Also unusual for its time, Sidney Poitier’s name appears with co-star Alan Ladd’s above the title in the opening credits. In fact, the film was written as a star vehicle for Poitier, but the studio would only back it if a major white co-star could be found. Ladd (“This Gun for Hire,” “The Blue Dahlia” and “Shane”) apparently was the only one who would agree. In fact his Ladd Company co-produced the movie.

The Story:  Poitier plays a young sergeant unexpectedly placed in command of the survivors of an ambushed platoon. Not only does he have to win the trust and respect of the other men who are all white, but he has to contend with the contempt of one who is an out-and-out racist, and the second-guessing from Ladd’s character, a more experienced former top sergeant from the South who was was busted down to private.

As a side note, the extras hired to play North Korean troops in the film were actually Native Americans from the nearby Blackfeet Nation Reservation in Browning, Montana.


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SHAKO is an occasional 4GWAR posting on military history, traditions and culture. For the uninitiated, a shako is the tall, billed headgear worn by many armies from the Napoleonic era to about the time of the American Civil War. It remains a part of the dress or parade uniform of several military organizations like the corps of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy, West Point, New York

February 28, 2021 at 1:08 am 1 comment


February 2021


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