How the Korean War changed Michael Caine forever
For six decades, Michael Caine has been at the forefront of British and American cinema, having conquered the movie industry on both sides of the Atlantic ocean. His early roles in the likes of Zulu and The Italian Job are just as iconic as his later work, including The Man Who Would Be King, Hannah and Her Sisters and The Cider House Rules.
While Caine is indeed one of the most acclaimed English actors of all time, his life was not always destined to be that way. In fact, before Caine had ever had the chance to prove his worth as an actor, he first had to do national service, and between 1952 and 1954, he served in the British Army Royal Fusiliers.
The first port of call was at the British Army of the Rhine HQ in Iserlohn, West Germany, but Caine, then known as Maurice Joseph Micklewhite, was eventually sent out on active duty in the Korean War. By the time Caine arrived, the war was at a bloody standstill, but the battle was still raging on, and the future actor fought against Chinese and North Korean soldiers in the Samichon River Valley.
In his 2010 memoir The Elephant to Hollywood, Caine discussed his time in the conflict. “I know what it feels like to be sent off to fight an unpopular war that no one at home really understands or cares about,” he wrote. “And then to come back and meet a complete lack of understanding. Or worse, indifference.”
Upon arrival in Korea, Caine knew little about the countries involved nor why they were fighting. His training looked to have been completely pointless, and nothing could have prepared him for the true horrors and reality that lay waiting for him, especially the first time he heard the military trumpets blare on his first night on watch.
“There in front of us, a terrifying tableau was illuminated,” he noted. “Thousands of Chinese advancing toward our positions, led by troops of demonic trumpet players. The artillery opened up, but they still came on, marching toward our machine guns and certain death.”
When Caine’s personal time was spent in Korea, he looked at the 19-year-old men who were coming to replace them and felt that he looked about ten years older than them, such is the ageing nature of war. The biggest impact the war had on Caine, though, was when he faced a near-certain death one night in no-man’s land.
Along with two other British troops, Caine had to storm a unit of Chinese soldiers just as they were about to ambush him. Admitting how the incident forever changed him, the actor wrote, “I just think, as I did on that Korean hillside, ‘You cannot frighten me or do anything to me, and if you try, I’ll take as much or as many of you with me as I can.'”