It's early in the fighting between the North and South Koreans and WWII Army vets Colonel Steve Janowski (Robert Mitchum) and Sgt. Baker (Charles McGraw) are training South Korean troops to ready them for combat. As the fighting intensifies though, Janowski and Baker are tasked with a bigger mission. The North Koreans are sneaking through American lines disguised as refugees, even forcing the refugees to hide guns and ammunition. Janowski meets an American woman, Linda (Ann Blyth), working with the United Nations, but their new relationship is threatened by the increasing conflict all around them.
Released right in the middle of the Korean War, 'Zero' is guilty of being a little heavy-handed at times. It's understandable. The goal was likely to convince American viewers that the American forces were in the right. We see the evil Communist North Koreans holding guns on South Korean refugees (babies and all), we see executed American troops, we see McGraw's Sgt. Baker teaching little kids how to blow bubbles with their bubble gum. North Korean troops are basically nastiness and evil incarnate while the Americans are for the most part, always in the right. Thankfully, director Tay Garnett doesn't go too far with his message. It's there, and yes, it can be heavy-handed, but it's never truly painful to watch like some propaganda war films.
'Zero' handles its story the right way in juggling a war story and a love story. In that way, it reminded me a lot of a film made seven years later, 1959's Never So Few. Neither film focuses exclusively on the war or love angle, and that's a good thing. For the most part, it bounces back and forth between the two. Mitchum's Colonel Janowski is a longtime vet who's risen through the ranks. He's used to fighting, but not quite like what he's seeing in Korea. As the love interest, Blyth's Linda is still coping with the loss of her husband late in WWII. She has genuine feelings for Steve, but she doesn't want to see another love ripped away from her again in war. As a bonus, Linda isn't a damsel in distress. She's working near the front lines with the United Nations at aid stations. She too sees the horrors of war.
Joining the fighting in Korea early on, Mitchum's Janowski works with an American infantry battalion, including Captain Ralston (Richard Egan), a capable officer who focuses on the mission but also watches out for his men as best as possible. Ralston's men include Wally Cassell, Hal Baylor, Alvin Greenman, and Lalo Rios. William Talman has a strong supporting part as Colonel Parker, Janowski's long-time friend and an Air Force pilot with Margaret Sheridan as his wife.
While there are moments nearing cringe-inducing territory, there are others that are equally effective in the opposite direction. Janowski and Baker teaching South Koreans how to take out a Russian tank is a gem early on in the story. I thought the best sequence though has Janowski, Ralston and Baker deciding what to do with a road crammed for miles with Korean refugees. It is know that North Korean guerrillas are hiding amidst the refugees, but something has to be done. The refugees are let through a checkpoint, but Janowski calls in artillery fire that drops closer and closer to the refugees. He hopes to call their bluff with the guerrillas revealing themselves. It is an incredibly intense sequence with a surprising end result, especially considering this would have been shown to a 1952 audience.
The highlight though was the finale as Janowski, Baker, Ralston and an infantry battalion head far behind North Korean lines to slow up a military convoy delivering badly need supplies to the front. They're forced to hold a position for considerably longer than planned, and supplies begin to dwindle as North Korean forces move in for the kill. It's an impressive extended sequence that is more effective in showing the sacrifices made by soldiers than any far more obvious flag-waving scene. Maybe it is a flag-waving scene, but it works extremely well just the same. It takes a little while for this Korean War love/war story to get going, but once it does, it doesn't slow. Well worth sticking with it through the end.
One Minute to Zero (1952): ***/****