As the Korean War nears its end, Sgt. Briscoe (Kirk Douglas) and his men (Nick Adams and Robert Walker Jr.) save an enemy pilot (Enrique Magalona) from his fighter jet crash. They reluctantly take him along on the neutral fuel ship that’s transporting them and the jet fuel they’re tasked with bringing to headquarters. They’re forced to bunk with their prisoner, and then receive the order to execute him, which kicks off a battle of wills.
Directed by former playwright and actor George Seaton, this is a compelling drama and acting showcase with some big action scenes, especially during the opening bombing run. But it mainly unfolds in cramped, claustrophobic spaces like the cabin or the hold where one must crawl gingerly lest the leaky fuel canisters blow them all sky high. Suspense comes from the pressure of more than one countdown; Briscoe’s men must execute their POW before they dock, later they resolve to help the POW escape in the night before Briscoe wakes up, and then, once the happy news comes that hostilities have ceased and war is over, the men race to find their unaware, escaped prisoner who’s gone on a suicidal plan to blow up the fuel and ship. Those “missions” and all the debate, action and character revelations that come with them, make for a tense psychological play that forwards the unsurprising morals that the enemy is human too, and so many battles are made of ambiguous goals and outcomes.
Walker made his screen debut here as the compassionate Private Dennison. His naivete gets one of the GIs killed, but Briscoe tries to comfort him with assurances that these deaths are random and nobody’s fault but the POW’s who did the shooting. Still, Dennison can’t relate to Briscoe’s battle-hardened pragmatism, tries to communicate with their POW and even learns his name, which of course makes Dennison even more reluctant to kill. Dennison refers to the military-issue Korean guidebook to argue his views about understanding and respect, but the older soldiers have no use for the flowery language of the Private’s booklet; they see it as a deceptive “tour brochure” that sells a pretty and fun side of the country that they’ve never seen among all the horrible bloodshed and bombing. Adams is great as the former Corporal who, due to boundless gratitude over a favour Briscoe once did him, goes along with all his orders. In the course of the growing tensions, Hackett struggles with his reluctance to obey and discovers his loyalty to Briscoe is based on a lie.
Douglas is appropriately intense and uncompromising, seething with frustration and animosity, for the Korean who shot up his men, the soldiers who defy his orders, for the well-meaning ship captain (Nehemiah Persoff, in a good performance) he sees as a meddling peacenik, and this whole war that put them all in such impossible situations. “Any day a war ends is a nice day,” he says, and before it’s all over he finds out for himself, in the final moments facing the determined Korean opponent, that there is a time and place for a little more understanding.
The Hook is available from Warner Archive.