Twentieth-century Fox has just released a DVD version of its The Glory Brigade, a film Greek-Americans will find fascinating. An otherwise ordinary Korean War film issued in 1953, it merits our consideration due to its treatment of Greek ethnicity.
The first sequences follow a valiant American platoon led by Lt. Sam Pryor (Victor Mature), an apparently all-American guy who enjoys the confidence and affection of his men. Upon returning to a base camp, Pryor becomes informed of a battlefield problem. A Greek unit will be going behind enemy lines to determine if the apparent movement of North Korean troops is a ruse or actual. The Americans will provide river transport, but they will be under “foreign” command. This was a time when many in the U.S. military, officers, and rank and file, were reluctant to work under non-American commanders.
After all the other American officers express great reluctance to participate in the action, Lt. Pryor steps forward, saying he is the son of Greek immigrants and would be honored to work with fellow Greeks. He volunteers his unit to participate. Although his men would rather not go back into battle immediately, they support him.
This was an era when second generation Greeks were often uncertain about the countries their parents had fled, sometime rejecting “the old country” culture, sometimes romanticizing it. Pryor is the later type. He brags to his men about his Greek heritage and speaks about Greeks as great warriors, casually mixing history and myth.
The first meeting with the Greeks is extremely cordial. Their contact in the field is the English-speaking Lt, Niklas (Alexander Scourby), who is from a privileged sector of Greek society, complete with pipe and upper-class manners. There is a “manly” round of drinking brandy followed by moments when Hollywood ethnic stereotypes take over.
The Greek soldiers engage in vigorous and noisy Greek dancing. As the Americans look on perplexed, Niklas quotes from Palamas about the need to dance before battle. There are lambs roasting on spits and the whole scene resembles a Greek glendi. Things get more serious when a priest in full vestments, including a stove pipe hat, conducts an open-air service. The Greeks become very dignified and the viewer understands they are indeed “devoted God-fearing Christians.”
Pryor’s men take up defensive position near the spot from which they are to evacuate the Greeks when they return from their foray behind enemy lines. A series of incidents soon sours Pryor’s estimation of the Greeks. Some of his men witness a group of Greek prisoners who seem to have surrendered at first contact with the enemy. Another incident suggests the Greeks withdrew from a battle rather than fight. Pyror’s ethnic pride turns to contempt when a detachment of his men are found slain where they were to rendezvous with the Greeks.
In due course, the surrender of some Greeks turns out to have been an act of courage to mask what the main Greek force was doing. A roster of tricks, in fact, has allowed the Greeks to discover the true battle positions of the Communists, which are quite different from what had been assumed. The American who begins to understand the valor of the Greeks is not Pryor, who has become somewhat irrational in his new hatred of Greeks, but a tough working-class corporeal played by Lee Marvin in one of his first Hollywood roles.
As Pryor begins to understand how the Greeks have outwitted the Koreans, he recovers some of his respect for the Greeks, but he remains skeptical about their skills. The new challenge is for the combined platoons to get the data gathered back to headquarters. This is difficult due to technical problems and position. They resolve to move to a hill from which they can send a message.
The film’s subtext becomes explicit. Neither the Greeks nor the Americans can complete their mission and save the day on their own. The platoons must combine their disparate skills. By working in harmony and overcoming distrust, they get the message through to headquarters. What would have been a disastrous American defeat becomes a successful American offensive
Most of the action sequences that follow are standard newsreel stuff designed to show American tank power taking control. Viewers will not be sitting on the edge of their seats wondering about the outcome or if some major character will be killed. The real battle, the battle to achieve ethnic solidary, has been won. The film ends with the cigarette-smoking Greek American affectionately placing his arm over the shoulders of the pipe-smoking Greek as both are transported from the battlefield by helicopter.
The American forces in the all-male cast contain numerous character actors whose faces will be more familiar than their names. Many of the actors playing Greeks are Greek or Greek Americans. Co-star Alexander Scourby is a Greek American who speaks excellent Greek. Also getting considerable screen time is immigrant Nick Dennis, now most famed for his role as one of the poker players in both the Broadway and Hollywood productions of A Streetcar Named Desire directed by Elia Kazan. The Greek priest is played by real-life priest Father Patrianakos. Other Greeks in the film are Nico Minardos, Costas Morfis, and John Verros.
The Glory Brigade is one of a number of films made in the 1950s in which Greeks are mainstreamed as true Americans. It’s a Big Country (1951), another film about the Korean War offers eight episodes by eight different directors who celebrate American racial and religious diversity. Episode 8 features Gene Kelly as Private Icarus Xenophon writing a letter from Korea. In the legendary Kiss Me Deadly (1954), Mike Hammer’s Greek sidekick is played by Nick Dennis. The most ambitious film about Greeks is Beneath the Twelve Mile Reef (1953) in which Greek sponge divers in Florida battle local xenophobes. The film ends with the Greek hero (Robert Wagner) marrying the daughter (Terry Moore) of the leader of the American spongers.
Greeks even showed up as cowboys in genre films like Gunpoint (1955), which starred real-life war hero Audie Murphy, and The Silver Canyon (1951), which starred Gene Autry, “America’s singing cowboy.” In Tribute to a Bad Man, set in the American west of the 1880s immigrant Irene Papas sings a love song in Greek to James Cagney! These films, like The Glory Brigade, indicate a fundamental shift away from the xenophobic view of Greeks that was characteristic of much of America in the years prior to World War II.
This article is based on a longer review that appeared on line (www.cineaste.com) in Cineaste film quarterly, V. 39, No.1 (Spring 2014) and is reprinted with permission from Cineaste.