It is May 1953 on the battlefields of Korea – some three weeks before the truce will be signed between the Chinese Communists and the forces of the United Nations. But while UN troops know the ceasefire is probably imminent, there is no let-up in the fighting.
As the company commander has told a group of American replacements in an informal briefing, “This is a peculiar war”.
Private Roy Loomis (Robert Redford in his first credited feature film role) is one of these replacements, first squad, third platoon. Other members of the squad include Sgt Van Horn (Sydney Pollack), Corporal Showalter (Tom Skerritt), Crotty (Gavin MacLeod), Fresno (Anthony Ray) and Raymond Endore (John Saxon).
And – although not on the roster – Charlie (Tommy Matsuda), an 8-year-old Korean War orphan who has attached himself to Endore.
Endore is an enigma to his fellows. For the love of it, he essays solitary night patrols into enemy outposts. Garbed in black with his face blackened and armed only with a stiletto, he has a long list of Communist kills, and information he brings back on enemy dispositions has won him the high regard of Captain Wallace Pratt (Charles Aidman) who has posted him for a DSC.
He is kind and almost fatherly towards Charlie but doesn’t hesitate to make known his dislike if others in the squad show any interest in the youngster, as Loomis discovers when he tries to teach the boy to play catch.
As the squad moves into the trenches and bunkers of the Main Line of Resistance, the antagonism between Endore and Loomis increases.
Endore continues his nightly forays to the growing worship of Charlie and the respect of Captain Pratt, but when a colonel suggests he should be sent out for R&R, Endore almost desperately declines. He is allowed to remain with the squad.
Loomis survives a squad patrol into no-man’s-land, during which he chillingly witnesses a kill by Endore, but during a subsequent Chinese bombardment, he suffers a dislocated leg which leaves him helpless in the path of the onrushing Communists. Endore shows up out of the dark and, as Loomis crawls, leads him back to the American lines.
Assigned as a typist in the supply tent while recovering from the leg injury, Loomis has further occasion to associate with Charlie and seeks to show the lad that, despite Endore’s promises, when the war is over, Charlie will be separated from his hero.
The boy likes Loomis, but his affection for Endore is too great to let him accept what Loomis tells him, and Endore soon bluntly tells Loomis to stop interfering.
When at last the ceasefire order arrives, each member of the squad is informed. As the GI’s start a mild celebration, Loomis is appalled to see Endore slip out of their lines and disappear in no-man’s-land, dressed in black with his face blackened and his stiletto in his belt. Charlie is with him.
With Van Horn, Loomis reports Endore’s departure to a stunned Captain Pratt, who knows that the truce itself is in jeopardy if Endore kills during the ceasefire.
Next morning, masquerading as a graves detail, Pratt, Van Horn, and Loomis start a search through no-man’s-land for Endore, under the watchful eyes of nearby Chinese outposts.
Through scores of destroyed trenches and crumbling bunkers, they carry out their desperate hunt. As dusk falls, they locate their quarry in a caved-in bunker. Charlie is beside him.
As the detail approaches, Pratt seeks to talk Endore out of the ruins and return to the American lines. Endore refuses and says he’s planning an ambush that night. With all their pleas failing, the trio moves slowly in on Endore.
Pratt reaches him first, and Endore slashes out at him with his stiletto. Van Horn lunges and gets a fist in the face. Then Loomis tackles the man and is cut down with the knife in his shoulder. Pratt draws his .45 and shoots. Endore dies.
Dazed, Pratt lowers his weapon. “A mad dog,” he says. Charlie looks at Endore’s body and – with his hands to his ears – starts running and disappears over the horizon.
War Hunt was filmed in just 15 days with a budget of $250,000.
Pvt. Raymond Endore
Pvt. Roy Loomis
Capt. Wallace Pratt
Sgt. Owen Van Horn
Pvt. Joshua Fresno
Cpl. Stan Showalter