“Pork Chop Hill” (1959), starring Gregory Peck, is the powerful true story about a one of the costliest battles of the Korean Conflict. The movie showed the grim realities of war and depicted the heroism and humanity of the men who were sent to fight. Among the many fine actors who rounded out the supporting cast were two pioneering African-American performers, Woody Strode and James Edwards as two of the infantrymen.
Woody Strode, who played the insolent Pvt. Franklin in the movie, was one of the first African Americans to make a mark in American movies. Strode was already accustomed to being a trailblazer; he played football at the University of California at Los Angeles alongside Jackie Robinson. After college, Strode was one of the first black players to integrate the National Football League. Tall, athletic, and good-looking, Strode made his film debut in the early 1940’s beginning a career in movies that would last half a century. Strode was a notable presence in “The Ten Commandments” (1956), “Spartacus” (1960) and he became a member of the fraternity of actors who made up John Ford’s informal repertory company, appearing in 12 of the director’s films including the starring role in “Sergeant Rutledge” (1960). You can see some of Woody Strode’s other performances among the films in the MGM library including “The Cotton Club,” (1984) Kingdom of the Spiders (1977) and “Posse” (1993).
James Edwards, who played the courageous Corporal Jurgens was another African-American actor who found work during the studio era. Commissioned as a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army during World War Two, Edwards made a specialty of playing military men. One of his most memorable roles was in John Frankenheimer’s cold war classic, “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962) where he played a member of Laurence Harvey’s brainwashed platoon. Edwards also played a small part in Stanley Kubrick’s early film noir, “The Killing” (1956). All three of those films can be found in the MGM library. Tragically, Edwards’ career was cut short by a heart attack at the age of 51 in 1970.
In a time when most actors in Hollywood were white and within a story about the futility of war, “Pork Chop Hill” offered Strode and Edwards something unique: the opportunity to play African-American characters with opposing and conflicting viewpoints. Both men gave strong performances and moments that stand out in this superior film.
Enjoy the work of these two fine performers in Pork Chop Hill this September & October on MGM HD.