The Marines Who Never Returned [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - South Korea - Korean Film Archive/Blue Kino
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (25th March 2024).
The Film

"The Marines Who Never Returned" <돌아오지 않는 海兵> (1963)

During a fiery battle in a burned-down city in the Korean War, a young civilian mother is gunned down by Northern forces and leaving her young daughter Yeong-hui (played by Jeon Yeong-seon) crying by her side. The squadron leader (played by Jang Dong-hwi) and his men rescue the girl from the oncoming gunfire and end up taking her into their care. While the men have a duty to fight for their country, it is also a new obligation for them to take her to safety as well. During their travels, Yeong-hui becomes an essential member of the squadron, keeping spirits up even when there are some internal conflicts between some of the soldiers. But with northern spies and soldiers at every corner they turn, their journey becomes more difficult than originally expected.

Made a decade after the Korean War, "The Marines Who Never Returned" was the sixth feature film directed by Lee Man-hee and was the first of eleven war films that he directed in his career of 51 features. Having experienced wartime duty himself and the country still experiencing the trauma of their land divided in two, the film focuses quite a lot on realism. From the combat sequences, the emotional distresses, the tension, as well as the camaraderie are all present, while also injecting humor and drama for storytelling purposes. The standout comes from having a young girl at the center as the symbol of innocence and one that both the characters and audiences feel for. From the loss of her mother being gunned down and suddenly being in the care of a group of male soldiers, there is a lot of pain within her yet she is well spirited and one that brings some joy to the men who are in a life and death situation. She gives each soldier a nickname like "Hairy-Beard", "Toad", and "Big Sister" for comical relief and also to differentiate the soldiers. There are some who are serious in nature such as the squadron leader while there is the transferred soldier played by Koo Bong-seo who uses his comedic talents wonderfully in a number of memorable sequences. From the broken English scene with the American soldiers outside the nightclub, the twist dancing in the barracks, and the taking a crap in the field scene, his scenes are sometimes scene stealers that can make one forget they are watching a war film with some serious tones. There is also the horrific nature of Private Gu (played by Lee Dae-yub) who finds the tortured and murdered body of his sister, and the the conflicted response he has towards Choi (played by Choi Moo-ryong), a fellow Marine whose communist brother was the one that killed her. Not all of the men in the squadron get equal time and most are not even referred to by name so there are a number of background faces, yet there is enough to give the main characters depth and uniqueness that are fitting and essential for war films.

The film mostly looks at the squad through the eyes of the young Yeong-hui, with her narration being key in certain sequences, though there are a few portions such as the combat scenes in which she is not around. Possibly the most memorable scene is the squadron going to the Lucky Club, a bar that is strictly for the allied forces and not for the Korean soldiers. With numerous sexy ladies ready with Christmas decorations for the upcoming holiday and ready to entertain the American men, the scene is not only a comical one but one that points out the social differences and the mistreatment of the men in their own country. The havoc caused and the eventual outcome is a great example of tension and liberation through the scenario and the performances, especially of Koo's aforementioned broken English which was supposedly mostly adlibbed.

As stated the realism was strong with the combat sequences, which had full military support with hundreds of extras in a number of scenes. In addition, the explosives were not of movie-making magic but real TNT used, so many of the actors' expressions were genuine. In addition, supposedly Lee wanted the actors not to know where the explosives were placed for a more genuine reaction, though this idea was downright rejected for safety issues. The war scenes are well choreographed and well filmed with tense sequences of gunfire and bombings and including a number of tactical keys for the soldiers to follow. The film's title itself is more or less a spoiler, and much like "Seven Samurai", there no guarantee that all will survive. There is the notion in the title that they would all fall on the battlefield, but it also implies that the war would still continue for the men long after, as the experience would change them forever.

"The Marines Who Never Returned" was a costly production with a budget of 8.8 million Won, which was triple the budget of an average feature at the time. Released in South Korean cinemas on April 11th, 1964, the film became one of the biggest hits of the year and also a critical favorite, often called the best Korean War Film of all time. It unleashed a wave of war themed productions in the country. The film won three awards at the 1964 Grand Bell Awards, with Best Director, Best Sound Recording for Sohn In-ho and Best New Cinematographer for Seo Jeong-min. It also received two awards at the 1963 Blue Dragon Awards with Best Director and a Special Achievement Award for the ensemble cast.

Another significant note about the film is that it was the first South Korean feature to be distributed in the United States in 1966, although with a number if differences. Independent distributor Manson Distributing Corporation acquired the rights to the film, for which they made some drastic changes. First the film retitled "Marine Battleground" and was given bookending scenes taking place during the Vietnam War, with newly shot scenes featuring actor Jock Mahoney as an American soldier and actress Pat Li playing an older version of Yeong-hui, growing up to become a nurse to support the troops, and essentially the film being told as a flashback form of her childhood in the Korean War. In addition, a number of scenes were excised, focusing more on the scenes with Yeong-hui rather than the soldiers. The film was dubbed into English and the runtime was much shorter at 88 minutes. For many years there wasn't a full comparison made between the two versions, but after a print of the US version was donated to the Korean Film Archive in 2017, researchers made a major discovery that there was nearly 20 minutes of footage that was shot by Lee which was deleted from the South Korean theatrical version. How this deleted footage was made available to the American distributor three years later for their version is a mystery, and how it was unnoticed even by researchers at KOFA is an interesting oversight.

Note this is a region ALL Blu-ray


The Korean Film Archive/Blue Kino presents the film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio in 1080p AVC MPEG-4. The original 35mm camera negative was scanned and restored in 4K resolution in 2022. On the old DVD release, the black and white image was riddled with speckles on the frame, splicer tape marks, cigarette burns for reel changes and other wear and tear, and these were all corrected through digital and manual techniques by KOFA and Image Power Station for the new restoration. Damage marks have been eliminated entirely for a pristine image, while also correcting flicker and warping for stability, while keeping film grain intact for an excellent filmlike quality throughout. Gate hairs that were in the original negative were kept intact rather than digitally erasing them, though they appear very infrequently. An excellent job all around and another winner for the collection.

The film's runtime is 109:44, including opening restoration text, which is in quite a small font.


Korean LPCM 1.0
The original mono track is presented in uncompressed form. As with all South Korean productions of the period, the entire soundtrack was post synchronized so there are some moments of mouth movements not matching the dialogue correctly. Sounds of gunfire, explosions and other wartime effects sound very good and well balanced against the dialogue, though there are instances with yelling and screaming that the sound can get muffled. The audio was remastered from 35mm sound negative, and it was given a restoration as well to remove hiss, pops, crackling and other noise that was heard on the older DVD release from KOFA. A very good restoration of the audio here.

There are optional English, Japanese, Korean subtitles for the main feature in a white font. They are well timed, easy to read and without issues of spelling or grammar problems.


Audio commentary by Cho Jun-hyoung (Korean Film Archive) and Huh Nam-woong (film critic) (2023)
This newly recorded commentary is unfortunately a case of a number of KOFA Blu-rays in which it is only offered in Korean without subtitles.
in Korean Dolby Digital 2.0 without subtitles

Audio commentary by Choi Dong-hoon (film director) and Ju Sung-chul (journalist) (2010)
This commentary has filmmaker Choi Dong-hoon joined by journalist of Cine21 Ju Sung-chul discussing the film and its legacy. They discuss about why it is often regarded as South Korea's best war film, the production background including the realism in the battle scenes and using actual TNT, the high budget, comparisons to other features by Lee, the influence it had on other war films, information on the cast and crew and much more. It has a lot of information included, but sadly this commentary is also here without subtitles. It is an odd exclusion, as the 2010 DVD release had English subtitles and for some reason not ported over.
in Korean Dolby Digital 2.0 without subtitles

Unreleased Footage (20:59)
When the film was released in the United States under the title “Marine Battleground” in 1966, The film was restructured in flashback form of an adult Yeong-hee recalling her experience. While the film had newly shot sequences in English, it was also drastically cut . What is surprising to note is that the US version had nearly 20 minutes of footage that was shot by Lee Man-hee in 1963 but was deleted from the South Korean theatrical version. There is no record of how this came about, but thankfully a print of the US version was donated to the Korean Film Archive from the Nga Taonga Sound & Vision in New Zealand in 2017. There are a total of 34 sequences, along with a number of quick short transition shots and the end title card. Some of the deleted material are only a few frames long, some of them are for a few minutes, ranging from battle scenes, scenes with Yeong-hee and the marines, the women at the nightclub, and more. The film itself has not been restored and has damage marks and scratches all over, but sharpness is very good, as well as the sound which is only available in English. Before each scene there is introductory text of the scene and the length in seconds and frames in both English and Korean.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in English Dolby Digital 2.0 mono with burned-in Korean subtitles + English & Korean introductory text

"Digital Restoration: Before & After" featurette (3:02)
A side by side restoration comparison showcasing the original film with its damage marks and flickering, compared to the restored version which cleaned up the image wonderfully. The framing is presented squeezed in 1.33:1 with slightly rounded corners so the image looks taller than the correct widescreen version. It is presented silent, only showcasing the image restoration and not the sound.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4

Image Gallery
A series of ten stills, with behind the scenes photos, a still of the film screening in a South Korean cinema, and the color poster.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4

A 64 page bilingual Korean & English booklet is included. First are film credits, a synopsis and an awards list, followed by a filmography of Lee Man-hee. Next are extensive restoration notes for the film. The first essay is "The Director, Who Capturees the Atmosphere of the Times: Lee Man-hee" by Cho Jun-hyoung, which looks at the legacy of the films by the late director and his varied filmography who passed away far too young. Also by Cho is the sexond essay, entitled "War and People: Lee Man-hee's War Films and The Marines Who Never Returned" which centers more on the film as well as Lee's other war features. Then there is "New Discoveries Within the International Version of The Marines Who Never Returned" by KOFA's Young Jin Eric Choi which looks at the discovery of additional unique footage found in the US version. Finally, there is a list of the exclusive footage in the US version of the film, plus stills from the new commentary recording and disc credits.

The film had its first DVD release in South Korea by Bitwin but with a non-anamorphic transfer and few extras. KOFA first released the film on DVD in 2010 as part of the 4-film "Lee Man-hee Collection" which had an anamorphic transfer, a commentary, and a KOFA produced documentary on the director. There is a German DVD from Shamrock which includes both the original South Korean version and the alternate "Marine Battleground" US version. In the United States, there doesn't appear to be a DVD available, though Shout! Studios seem to have streaming rights to the US version of the film. It seems to have been a missed opportunity for KOFA, as they should have included the US version for full comparison, though it may have been a rights issue with the particular version, so only fragments and clips are featured. Also a missed opportunity is not including the documentary on Lee which was available on the KOFA DVD boxset.


Packaged in a standard size clear Blu-ray keep case, it is housed in a slipbox which holds the keep case and the 64-page booklet along with three artcards. The slipbox, is labeled "033" on the spine as the 14th Blu-ray release from KOFA.


"The Marines Who Never Returned" is one of Lee's finest works and a defining war film for South Korean cinema, balancing a harrowing war theme with humanity and some comedy at times. KOFA's 4K restoration looks excellent and the Blu-ray is a great looking one all the way, though it was a missed opportunity by not including the alternate American version of the film. Still comes as highly recommended.

Note the film is available to watch for free in an unrestored form on the Korean Film Archive YouTube Channel.

The Film: A Video: A Audio: A- Extras: B- Overall: B+


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