Fixed Bayonets! (Samuel Fuller, 1951)
It’s winter in Korea, where a solitary few dozen soldiers, led by the tough yet practical veteran Sgt Rock (Gene Evans), are left behind on a quasi-suicide mission, digging in into a treacherously icy mountainside, with the goal of holding off a division of advancing Red Chinese, tricking them into thinking they’re a much larger battalion, slowing them down long enough to let the rest of their division retreat in time over an exposed bridge.
From the first scene (with it, like the finale, being the only ones not taking place at the treacherous snow-bound mountain pass), all rat-a-tat camera angles and no-nonsense rapid-fire dialogue, capturing the underlying panic of the under-control army heads in their bunker, as out-of-breath soldiers hurry in delivering dire messages of the division’s plight, and a grim plan is hatched, to the follow-up scene, with its long stretch of no dialogue, the only sound the footfalls of the departing troops, with the literally abandoned soldiers standing tall on the side of the road, the camera now lingering on their individual faces, reinforcing their conflicted feelings as their eyes move slowly from left to right, watching the rest of their division – those not chosen for this deadly mission – slowly march by them to safety, Fuller reveals himself to be at the top of his cinematic game, drawing us immediately into this almost existential tale.
After the surprising box office success of the director’s low budget Korean war film The Steel Helmet, also from 1951, the studios came calling and gave him a chance to make another combat effort, taking place in the same conflict; only the arrival of corporate financial comfort clearly required the filmmaker, with Fixed Bayonets! provide a more sanitized vision than the critical incendiary perspective that the filmmaker had captured around troop life during that earlier film – gone are the condemning criticisms of American racism towards black Americans required to fight for their country, as are the stinging reminders of the fact that Japanese Americans were held in internment camps during World War Two… and there certainly isn’t any daringly raw moment as the emotionally unstable Sergeant Zack (played also by Evans) wildly shooting to death a tied-up prisoner of war.
What’s amazing is that Fuller was making these kind of statements in a war film for a conflict that was still going strong when the film was released! It’s little wonder that J Edgar Hoover himself met with Fuller trying to intimidate the director with the full weight of the insidious commie scare Senate House of Un-American Activities committee that destroyed the life of many a progressive Hollywood writer and director if he didn’t stop being critical of the American establishment and its military. Fortunately, Fuller dared Hoover and his menacing Senators to put a fully decorated war hero like himself on the witness stand before the American public and try and smear him… which they never dared do.
As toned down politically as it is, Fixed Bayonets! is still a triumph of cinematic storytelling. As in “Helmet”, its obvious Fuller has a great compassion for the soldier in these wars, and sees a tremendous valor in what he’s doing, but the director never confuses the heroism with any kind of national jingoism, even if the opening credits do (in fact, in “Helmet”, he’s openly critical of the America that waits at home for many of these men post-war). In both films, he carefully delineates (and defines character through) the various races and creeds of each man there (though with “Helmet”, he does it to separate them, in “Bayonets!” it’s to bring them more democratically together).
Each soldier’s goal is to simply stay alive (on this particular suicide mission… as well as, in the larger context, the entire suicide mission of war), and to function within a group to keep all of them alive. Fuller creates both a profound (and tough) comradery, as well as an often underlying tension, between them as they fight off the faceless enemy. Speaking of the ‘fighting’, while the film is almost entirely set on one (impressive) winter-bound cliff-side, Fuller’s direction fully maximizes the movement (and battles) that occur there, as they work out one clever idea after another to fool the enemy into not advancing entirely on them and wiping them out… that is, until the final tension-filled scene, when they realize the enemy is coming for good now, led by tanks.
One of the major plotlines, that being the plight of Corporal Denno, played by Richard Basehart (a reasonably good and familiar actor, yes, but I have to say, I’ve always found his combination of pronounced overbite and perfectly straight upper teeth more than a bit off-putting and in “Bayonets!”, where he was younger and leaner, it appears to jut forward even further – I can only imagine what it would have looked like if the film was in 3D), a soldier moving up in the ranks, who has a secret that he’s been unable to kill anyone and is terrified of the idea of becoming the troop’s leader (the moment Evans’ grumpy Sgt Rock who Denno has just confided in, tells him ‘Ah, don’t worry, you got me and two other men in front of you that would have to die before you’d take over as leader’, you can just feel the clock star clicking), does speak to the fairly overriding — somewhat archaic – belief in masculine strength that Fuller adheres to, but he’s also equally as fascinated in valor being found amongst the men in more sensitive ways – with the joy one of the soldier’s feels realizing he could actually be a surgeon, or in just their ability to confide and care for each other under such stressful circumstances that almost demand a shutting off of all feelings.
While the ‘enemy’ is identity-less in “Bayonets!”, always remaining ‘the other’ (unlike in “Helmet”, where the prisoner of war becomes a surprisingly vocal challenger of the hypocrisies of America), a hatred of them as some kind of encroaching danger to a ‘way of life’ is never broached. They are simply used as the existential threat by which Fuller can present what he sees as something powerful and fascinating that can be drawn out of flawed human beings under extreme circumstances.
While “Bayonets” certainly had a larger budget than “Helmet” and has impressive moments of war, it isn’t a film focused on large scale battle scenes. It doesn’t feel like a ‘big’ Hollywood film. That’s to its credit. Fuller’s view is always more intimate than that; his focus is on the relationships that are formed, and how the soldier deals with the tests that come with war.
A little side note, fun to discover early method actor James Dean, soon to explode into a cultural icon after starring in all of three films (then dying tragically in a car accident in which he was speeding recklessly in his professional sport car Spyder), making a cameo as a soldier the camera centers on to follow through the jungle in the very last scene of the film. I had no idea it was him and had to go back and watch it again after I was told he was in it… and then it was unmistakeably him.