Heroes: in

Classic North Korean film about and starring US defectors has been converted into colour

In 2005, Daniel Gordon (VMS Pictures) and Nicholas Bonner (Koryo Tours) began filming Crossing the Line, the documentary about the US defectors to North Korea. During the filming they interviewed the stars of the North Korean black and white film series entitled Nameless Heroes, which the US defectors had acted in. The 20 part epic was made for cinematic release. The production started in the late 1970’s and the films were released over a period of three years. Nameless Heroes became an iconic series of films in North Korea, chronicling the Korean War and North Korea's counterintelligence efforts.

Nameless Heroes was the first North Korean film to cast real foreigners as actors using the four US military defectors: Private Larry Allen Abshier (b. 1946, Illinois) who defected in May 1962; Private First Class James J. Dresnock (b. 1941, Virginia) who defected in August 1962; Specialists Jerry Wayne Parrish (b. 1944, Kentucky) who defected in December 1963 and Sergeant Charles Jenkins (b. 1940, Virginia) who defected in January 1965.

The four Americans were each assigned a character – Abshier was Carl, a subordinate to two evil Americans; Parrish was Lewis, a British officer who detested the imperialist occupation of his native Northern Ireland; Jenkins was Kelton, the evil mastermind and Dresnok was Arthur Cockstud, the commander of a POW Camp.

After Nameless Heroes, many more acting roles followed for the defectors, typecast as evil Americans – and their fame spread nationwide.

To this day, Dresnok (who died in 2016) is still known in North Korea as Arthur, his Nameless Heroes character name. His children are occasionaly sought for acting as ‘foreingers’ in DPRK productions.

Joe Dresnok was the protagonist of our documentary Crossing the Line. After defecting he was a teacher at the Pyongyang University of Foreign Languages. We heard from one of our tour guides who had studied under Dresnok that he had to be taught to teach English as his grammar was so poor, and also that they nicknamed him 'submarine' as his black shoes were so big.

Abshier would not share in this success. In 1983, he died of a heart attack. He was just 40 years old.

Several of the Korean actors in Nameless Heroes were of mixed origin, including So Ok Sun who played Janet (of Russian & Korean origin). In the film she plays the wife of Dr Kelton (Jenkins). She had been studying at Kim Il Sung University when she was auditioned for the part because of her ‘foreign’ looks.

Actor Son Dae Won played Colonel Claus a member of the United States Army Counter Intelligence Corps and was of Chinese and Korean origin.

In November 2018 the Pyongyang Film Technical Company turned the monochrome feature film into colour and in typical DPRK/English explains:

This technicolor film shows more vividly the characters and physiological states of actors and actresses and the phase of the times with rich visual effectiveness. Watching the reproduced film, viewers would say that it seems to be a new movie.

— Pyongyang Film Technical Company

Parts of the film were shot in the Korean Art Film Studio, which we sometimes visit as part of Koryo Tours' group tour itinerary or on a custom DPRK private tour. Please get in touch for more information.

Interested in learning more about North Korean film? Join our annual Pyongyang International Film Festival Tour to meet with Korean film professionals and share your experience with fellow film enthusiasts.

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