Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin -- Film Review

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As the title of this Memorial Day-related documentary suggests, "Uncommon Courage: Breakout at Chosin" is the story of a bold, brave and gutsy Marine who saved hundreds of lives during the Korean War. Surrounded on nearly all sides by Red China army units and badly outnumbered, the Marine led his company on a retreat from the Chosin Reservoir in subzero weather that saved about 500 leathernecks from almost certain oblivion.

The action was heroic enough to provide the makings of a great story, but there's an additional twist: The Marine lieutenant leader was Chew-Een Lee, the first Chinese-American officer in Marine history. Considering the rampant racism of the time, that's another fascinating story.

In some ways, Lee's military career is the more intriguing of the two tales, made all the more so by the dearth of actual video of what occurred. Narrator Greg Stebner calls the military breakout "a mission unprecedented in Marine Corps history" and "one of the great triumphs in American military history," but all footage of this military maneuver is either generic or re-enactments.

On the other hand, the story of Lee's ethnic breakout is backed by vintage photos and the accounts of family members, fellow officers and Lee himself.

Regardless, the careful and strategic retreat requires no more than a half-hour for the retelling, during which writer-producer Ted Poole summons all the visuals he can muster, including helpful computer-generated topographical graphics.

That leaves more than enough time for Lee's biography, including an explanation of why this less-than-imposing figure decided on a career in such an inhospitable environment. There's even time for some abbreviated history lessons, such as President Truman's order to integrate the armed forces and Gen. MacArthur's tactical failures, because of arrogance and ego, to comprehend the danger to his troops posed by the entrance of the Chinese into the conflict.

The documentary also marks the start of a not-so-subtle effort to recognize Lee's brave actions with a Medal of Honor. At one point, the narrator notes that "some" think Lee's command at Chosin should be acknowledged in that way.

Wounded a second time in battle, Lee spent many of his subsequent years devising strategy and training Marines for battle in Vietnam, contributing further to this uncommon story about an uncommon individual.

Airdate: 8-9 p.m. Monday, May 31 (Smithsonian Channel)
Production: KPI Television
Narrator: Greg Stebner
Executive producers: Bill Hunt, Vincent Kralyevich, Kristine Sabat
Producer-writer: Ted Poole
Line producer: Patricia Nugent
Director of photography: Tom Donatelli
Editor: Michael Hanna
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