John Hodiak had already made 30-plus movies in a career that lasted just over a decade. He was never a huge star and often played the second or third billed star, but in the handful of movies I've seen with him, Hodiak always left a positive impression. He had a natural way of acting, and always came across as incredibly likable. One of the last movies he starred in before dying so young was 1953's Mission over Korea, a war flick released while the U.S. was still involved in the Korean War.
The movie is really nothing special overall and works as a prime example of what a lower budget war movie could be. Not great, not bad. Just kind of there. It's instantly forgettable with its story of army pilots flying observation planes over the battlefield so that artillery can be called in on enemy positions. There's always a positive, if just depends on how hard you want to look. Besides Hodiak as the star, the positive is the aerial footage, blending shots of the slower, no armored observation planes and some of the first uses of jets in aerial combat. Other than, the character and story is as cookie-cutter as they come.
Flying as an observer in a light-weight plane with no weapons and no armor to protect from enemy fire, Capt. George Slocum (Hodiak) receives word that a new pilot is inbound to join him as an observer. The new, inexperienced pilot is Lt. Pete Barker (John Derek). Slocum has worked with Pete's older brother at the same airfield and is looking forward to meeting the younger brother. Barker is a hotshot though and is always looking to show off his ability, make a name for himself. With so few observation planes doing such an important job, Slocum is forced to go along with the antics, especially when reports of a new mission start circling the base.
That description is about as stream-lined as I could make this one. It used just about every war movie cliche, throws it in a blender, and the final result is a mismatched story that never really says anything or goes anywhere. We briefly meet Slocum's wife (Maureen O'Sullivan), but it's very briefly. Ladies man Barker tries to woo a nurse (Audrey Totter) but never really gets anywhere with her. Add in the ever-present threat of a North Korean attack, and you've got two romance subplots which are dead in the water. There's also a mission that's never really well defined as Slocum and Barker fly from airfield to airfield hoping to avoid those Korean attacks. A nice voiceover late states 'More will fight after what these men have started.' Translation, we didn't have more money to do anything else.
Searching for something to recommend, it starts with Hodiak and two supporting parts and ends with some cool aerial footage. Hodiak plays a well-worn character you've no doubt seen in countless other war movies, but the character is likable from the start. A father-son relationship with a Korean teenager (William Chun) is a little much at times, but that's minor. As for Slocum's mechanical crew, Harvey Lembeck as Sgt. Maxie Steiner and Richard Erdman as Pvt. Swenson have some fun in supporting roles. The trio have a good dynamic broken up by Derek's woodenness in a generally dislikable character. While somewhat limited, the aerial footage of the observation planes and fighter jets are impressive -- even if we have to see certain shots repeated over and over.
Not much more to say about this one. It's pretty poor overall and leans toward being straight propaganda. The North Korean guerrillas are outfitted with white sheets (I didn't get it either) and typically make appearances when a main character needs a reason to storm out of a scene and be angry. It's entertaining enough in an 'oh, that's pretty bad' way, but it's inoffensive enough to watch if you've got 80 minutes to kill. For Hodiak fans looking for a war movie, go check out the much better Battleground from 1949.
Mission over Korea (1953): **/****