Monday, April 22, 2013

Jacqueline Bisset Saves the Day in "Inchon!"

A movie that has always intrigued me, both because of what went on on-screen and off-, was the notorious Korean War epic "Inchon!" (1982) produced by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church.  The stories that went on behind the scenes on that film, as well as the bad reviews it received at the time, created an aura of mystery and intrigue surrounding the movie that makes me surprised that no one has ever attempted to write an in-depth book about it, much less released it on DVD containing all of its versions running different lengths as well as extras detailing the production history of it.  When I finally got to see the movie, years after it bombed at the box office, I was surprised that it didn't quite live up to my expectations of ineptitude as I had imagined.  It was indeed an uneven and bloated production, with an amazingly bizarre performance by Laurence Olivier as General Douglas MacArthur, but it had enough color and spectacle that it was never boring.  I kept expecting to chuckle at embarrassing moments, but I didn't probably because I sensed a level of earnest sincerity behind the whole enterprise that didn't warrant the contempt it had somehow engendered through the years.

What kept me engaged in the movie was the surprisingly touching subplot involving Jacqueline Bisset's character.  Bisset plays Barbara Hallsworth, the estranged wife of Marine Major Frank Hallsworth (Ben Gazzara) who is having an affair with a Korean woman Lim (Karen Kahn).  Barbara is living near the 38th Parallel and running an interior design business from Philadelphia.  The day the Communist North Korean soldiers move past the 38th parallel into South Korea, she is busy shopping for furniture for her clients when she learns of the Communists' advancement into the South.  She and her chauffeur escape in their Ford Woody station wagon as they proceed South to the American Embassy in Seoul, but he is killed by a North Korean plane firing from overhead.  As Barbara continues her journey by herself, she encounters an elderly Korean man who entrusts his five orphaned granddaughters with Barbara.  At first frustrated and annoyed with the responsibility of caring for these children that have been thrust upon her, Barbara eventually bonds with these Korean girls as they help bring a sense of purpose to her life that had been absent before.

Barbara and the girls encounter various dangers throughout their journey, including narrowly escaping a collapsing bridge that had been blown up by the South Koreans so that the Communists, who had been shelling and advancing upon the bridge, can't take possession of it.  Barbara also shoots a North Korean soldier between the eyes when he tries to confiscate her station wagon.  Along the way, they pick up a young Korean woman Mila (Lydia Lei) who was planning to get married, and has been separated from her fiancee, when the Communists began their advancement.  Barbara, Mila and the girls eventually arrive at a Mission run by the U.N. where they briefly take refuge and then move on to Pusan where Barbara is reunited with her husband.  After U.S. Troops are able to drive out the North Korean forces, Barbara bids a sad farewell to the five Korean girls as she and Frank reconcile.

Years ago, before I moved East for law school, I had the opportunity to interview Jacqueline Bisset for a book I was working on regarding 1960s-era actresses.  Bisset was one of the most intelligent people I ever met in my life, let alone one of the most intelligent actresses I encountered while conducting interviews for this book project.  She was as friendly and down-to-earth as her reputation indicated, with a refreshing sense of humor and humility about herself.  Even though she had high standards with regards to what she considered a good film, she was also a realist.  She knew it was difficult to have any sort of success as an actress in as competitive an industry as Hollywood, and realized that, despite best efforts, sometimes every actor ends up in a film that isn't very good.  There was no sense of entitlement about herself that I sometimes encountered with other actresses.  Despite her frustrations at the limited opportunities for mature actresses in Hollywood, I sensed that she knew she was fortunate to still be working.  She was one of the smartest actresses I ever met with regards to understanding the business end of Hollywood.  I learned a lot from her about maintaining a decorum of maturity and professionalism that I try to apply to my own life and career.

What was refreshing about her was that she didn't trash the Irwin Allen disaster movie "When Time Ran Out..." (1980) or "Inchon!" when I asked her about them.  She knew that they had been badly received, but acknowledged that she enjoyed making them and that everyone involved did their best.  She explained that she agreed to make "Inchon!" when the director, Terence Young, met with her personally after she had originally turned the script down.  He urged her to reconsider.  Bisset didn't like the overall script, but liked the subplot that had been devised for her character Barbara and agreed to do the film on that basis.  She said she enjoyed working in South Korea and loved working with Lydia Lei and the five Korean girls who played the orphans in her vignette.  At the time I spoke with her, she said she hadn't seen "Inchon!" but welcomed the opportunity to watch it someday because she was curious at how it turned out.  Bisset shared a funny anecdote about a woman approaching her not long after the release telling her that she loved "Inchon!"  Bisset was startled because she had heard nothing but bad things about it, and then found out that the woman was referring to the lavish premiere party the producers threw for it at the Cannes Film Festival, not the film itself.  She explained at the end of the interview that she has no regrets about "Inchon!" or "When Time Ran Out..." or other films she made that may not have turned out as well as she had hoped because she always found something good about the experience of every film she worked on.  I admired how she didn't take a bad movie in her career as somehow being a personal reflection upon herself, which other actresses self-indulgently do.

And there's no reason for Bisset to be embarrassed because she does good work in "Inchon!" and does indeed have the best subplot in the movie.  Barbara's storyline is one of the few that seems to have a clear objective and purpose in comparison to the other muddled narratives in the movie.  When we first encounter Barbara in the story, she's kind of haughty, self-centered and aristocratic.  She's haggling over the prices of antique Korean furniture with an antique dealer when she suddenly learns that the North Koreans have crossed the 38th Parallel, causing her to flee immediately.  She's only concerned for her own hide and doesn't seem overly upset when her driver is killed.  When she encounters the elderly Korean grandfather, as she is trying to cross a crowded bridge, who asks her to take his five granddaughters to safety, she selfishly refuses to help them until they climb into her car against her permission.  So her initial involvement with the Korean girls was hardly out of the goodness of her heart.  She even goes so far as to yell at them, when they climb into her station wagon, "Hey, what the Hell do you think you're doing?!  Come on, get out of there!  Quick!  Sir, get these little bastards out of here!"  Even after they climb into her car, she tells them they have to get out once they're safely across the other side of the bridge.

Eventually, however, Barbara's innate decency emerges as she and the Korean girls and, later, the young Korean woman Mila bond over the course of their journey.  Some of the best action sequences in the movie are the ones involving Barbara and the children, including the sequence on the bridge when the South Koreans blow it up.  The station wagon containing Barbara and the children teeters precariously over the edge until a group of South Korean soldiers help pull it to safety.  Later, when they encounter the Communist soldier who attempts to confiscate their vehicle, Barbara calmly shoots him between the eyes and floors the accelerator until they've escaped the Communists.  By the time the car has broken down, and Barbara is trying vainly to get it started up again, we see her holding her right hand up, with her fingers crossed for good luck, as the Korean children hold up their hands, with their fingers crossed as well, in a collective act of praying for good luck that the engine of the car will eventually turn over.  The gesture indicates Barbara's gradually softening feelings towards the children and also about her own lessening sense of entitlement.

When one of her husband's enlisted colleagues, Sergeant Henderson (Richard Roundtree) encounters Barbara and helps fix the engine of her car, he addresses her as "Mrs. Hallsworth."  Barbara appears indignant at his mock-formailty and asks him "What's this 'Mrs. Hallsworth' bit?"  Henderson explains, "You know, officer's wife, rich Philadelphia lady," and Barbara responds, "Right now, I'm just a woman with five kids, stuck in the middle of a war."  Henderson realizes that Barbara's experiences with the children have begun to change her from a selfish and entitled person, to someone with considerably more substance.  He jokes, "You're a bit dusty, quite a bit warmer, I must say motherhood quite becomes you."  Barbara is further humbled when she learns from Henderson that her husband Frank, who she assumed didn't care about her, has been busy trying to locate her since the fighting started.  As she gets into the car, she tells Henderson that she plans to "head south, all the way to Pusan.  It'll be safer for the kids.  And if that sounds noble, it isn't.  Maybe I just want Frank to know that I don't need him."  After what she has encountered, Barbara realizes that, at that moment, survival, and the safety of the children, is more important than being concerned about the future of her troubled marriage.

One of the (intentionally) funniest scenes in "Inchon!" has Barbara driving the car as the Korean girls yell and fight amongst themselves for crackers from a care package that Henderson has given them so they can eat.  She yells at them to settle down saying, "Oh, OK, you guys!  Keep it down or you'll have to walk all the way!  You hear!"  As she looks in the rearview mirror, she sees one of the youngest children mimicking her harsh, scolding nature.  Barbara honks the horn to tell her to cut it out and everyone gets silent in the car.  Barbara tries hard to suppress her smile as she bursts into laughter because the little girl has imitated her quite succinctly.  They all laugh together as Barbara grabs one of the crackers and begins to truly feel at-ease with these children.  Bisset and the Korean children have great chemistry together in this scene, and it's easy to see that she sincerely enjoyed working with them.

Throughout "Inchon!" we see how Barbara starts becoming genuinely concerned for their well-being and the well-being of the other refugees.  At one point, Barbara stops the car when she notices the bodies of American and South Korean soldiers strewn along the roadside.  She urges the oldest girl to engage the other children in games so that they aren't traumatized by the horrors surrounding them.  As she goes to help Mila, the young Korean refugee who was supposed to get married that day, tend to the wounded soldiers, she seems concerned about the bruises on Mila's face and asks where they came from.  As Mila tears up her wedding dress to make bandages to help the wounded American soldiers, she faints from exhaustion, and a concerned Barbara drags the girl to her car so that she can join them on their journey South to Seoul.  After Barbara and the girls arrive at the U.N. Mission, she originally intends to make the remainder of her trip alone, but realizes that she can't easily part company with Mila and the children just yet and brings them along with her to Pusan where she reunites with her husband.  When Barbara arrives in Pusan, and is greeted by a Turkish General (Gabriele Ferzetti), who asks "And whose, may I ask, are these young children?," Barbara proudly proclaims, "Mine." 

That night, Barbara has a scene where she tucks the children, who are sleeping side-by-side in an extremely wide bed, in at night.  She tells them, "Now, everyone, fast asleep!  Or I'll be back, and you'll see!"  As she walks out of the room, the girls start to laugh and Barbara jokingly scolds them "Now you all, don't you imitate me when my back's turned!"  It could have been a really corny scene, but Bisset and the Korean children pull it off thanks to the genuine warmth emanating from them that allows it to be a touching, rather than cloying, moment.  Because Barbara has changed so much, her reunion right after this with her husband Frank turns out to be less acrimonious than we would have expected it to be given his adultery and her lingering animosity towards him.  They argue, but Bisset and Ben Gazzara do a good job demonstrating how much they still love each other.  Even though they hash it out over the reasons he started having the affair with the Korean woman, Lim, and her boredom and frustration being an officer's wife, at the end of the scene Barbara has enough perspective to say "Look, Frank.  Tomorrow you're going to be off, wherever it is.  You've got problems of your own.  Let's leave ours for the moment.  And, later, when you come back, you tell me the way you want it and that's the way it'll be."  Barbara realizes that, with the war brewing around them, right now isn't the time to go over a litany of each other's shortcomings as spouses and that they can deal with it later when they have the luxury of considering their future.

At the end of the movie, after the American and South Korean forces have driven out the North Korean forces, Barbara and Mila bid farewell to the Korean children at an orphanage in Seoul.  As the bell rings for the children to attend class, the youngest of the children runs up to Barbara and hands her a drawing that the girls of made of Barbara, the five children, and their car, with a crayon scrawl saying "We Love You Babira."  Barbara brushes back tears as she tells Mila, "I don't have yellow hair."  After nearly 2 and a half hours of haphazardly staged epic battle sequences, and political posturing, the movie elicits some genuinely touching emotions with this quiet little moment.  Some people have scoffed that the drawing is awful and hilarious, but there's a simple sincerity to the moment that would have come across more clearly had it been contained in a much better movie.  In isolation from the rest of "Inchon!," however, the gesture works fine because of the heart that Jacqueline Bisset, Lydia Lei and the Korean children (who, unfortunately, are unbilled in the credits) invests in it.  If more of the movie was built around the Barbara storyline or, at the very least, had the same care and attention paid to it, perhaps it might not have been as critically reviled upon release.  The only thing that makes me slightly unsatisfied by the ending is that I'm a bit surprised that, after everything they've gone through, Barbara and her husband Frank don't adopt the children, rather than leaving them at the orphanage before returning to the United States.  However, since the rest of the movie has a lot of problems, I guess it would be unfair to quibble about a minor issue in what was, otherwise, the best storyline that "Inchon!" had going for it. 

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