dir. Sam Fuller
"I can take an order. I can't give 'em. Some men are afraid of high places, some are afraid of water, and some are afraid to be responsible for the deaths of a lot of other guys."
Back when I was working at New York's famed, now closed, video store Movie Place I had access to all sorts of movies imaginable, movies which were not available in my hometown of Waterville, Maine. Thus I was able to sink my teeth into the oeuvres of many a director that I had only read about before. Sure, back in Waterville I could catch some of these movies on TCM, but it simply didn't compare to the ability I had at Movie Place to rent one director's catalog over a period of a couple of weeks and catch up. Perhaps my favorite of these catch up directors is Sam Fuller. Before working at Movie Place, the only movies of his I had seen were The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor. Although I loved these two movies, I didn't think it was possible that all of his movies could be so good. After catching up on most of his work, there was no doubt in my mind as to his genius.
Coming from a hard bitten journalism background, Fuller had about as much use for subtlety as a mule would have for a spinning wheel. He held nothing back. His work is the movie equivalent of a big, swift kick to the balls. His style is especially effective in his war pictures, westerns, and crime pictures, but also works to a great degree in his loving ode to journalism, Park Row, which is now out of print. Truth be told, I was originally going to write a review of Park Row here. I should mention that one of the great perks of working at Movie Place was access to its catalog of out of print movies. Before the store closed, I was able to snag a bootleg of this movie. I figure it would be unfair, however, to write a review of Park Row, seeing as it is not regularly available. Instead I am writing about Fuller's second war picture, Fixed Bayonets.
Coming on the heels of his masterful Korean War movie The Steel Helmet, Fuller revisited this still ongoing conflict in the equally thrilling Fixed Bayonets. Fuller was a decorated soldier during WWII, an experience which he documented in his autobiography A Third Face and his picture The Big Red One (both high recommendations). Because he had first hand experience of the horrors of war, he was adamant about accurately documenting its realities. He was sick of Hollywood's rose colored, patriotic depictions of war. He wanted to show both its ugliness, and the true motives of a soldier. In his experience, a soldier's motivation is not a love of God or country but the survival instinct, plain and simple.
A master of the opening scene, Fuller does not disappoint here. While driving through snowy mountain terrain, a General and a soldier are shelled by a Korean bomb. When medics bring the injured men back to base, a couple of grunts comment on the situation. One of them is surprised that a General would put himself in such obvious danger; a general should be smarter than that. The other soldier replies that it takes more than brains to be a general; it takes guts. Thus, Fuller sets up the major theme of the movie.
Fixed Bayonets centers around a platoon that is given a suicide mission. In order for the regiment to pull off a rear guard action, this platoon must stay at the base and convince the enemy that it is an entire regiment. In this platoon is Cpl. Denno, played by Richard Baseheart. He is a man who would rather stand on the sidelines than fight, let alone lead a platoon. He has the smarts but not the guts necessary to lead. He is also unable to kill. This aspect of his character was, no doubt, inspired by a soldier Fuller knew in WWII, and who was portrayed by Mark Hamill in The Big Red One. Luckily, Denno does not have to lead. There are three officers ahead of him -- for now.
One of these officers is the tough talking, no-nonsense Sgt. Rock, played by the hard boiled Gene Evans. This is the kind of role Evans excelled at. Fuller gave Evans his big break when he previously cast him in a similar role in The Steel Helmet. Rock is completely realistic about the situation. He even makes dark jokes about the fast upward mobility in the platoon due to the high mortality rate among officers. Denno is not amused. During a Korean attack, the commanding officer dies. There are now only two officers, Sgt. Lonergan (Michael O'Shea) and Sgt. Rock, between Denno and leadership.
One night, when Lonergan goes out to scout for a missing soldier, he comes under attack and flees back to base where he gets caught in a minefield set up by the platoon. Lonergan has a map of the minefield but is too injured to move. It is necessary to the platoon's survival that someone save Lonergan so as to retrieve the map of the minefield. Also, if Lonergan dies, Denno is one step closer to leading. So afraid is Denno of the prospect of leading that he decides to traverse the minefield and rescue Lonergan and the map. What follows is the tensest scene I've ever seen in film. For what seems an eternity, Denno inches his way toward Lonergan. Denno eventually rescues Lonergan and brings him back to base. Unfortunately, by this time it's too late; Lonergan is dead. Ain't life a bitch.
During one sequence, Denno admits to Rock that he is scared to lead. He does not want to be held responsible for the lives of other men. He's too afraid to fuck it up. Rock essentially responds with, "Suck it up, bitch. This is war. You ain't got a choice." (I'm paraphrasing, of course.) Later, when Rock is killed, Denno finds his cajones and leads his men in a daring defense of their base.
By the time he made this movie, Fuller had already come into his own as a director. He had perfected the kinetic, intense style that would become his trademark. In Fixed Bayonets, the camera functions as another character, putting the viewer directly into the wartime experience. Indeed, apart from Max Ophuls, few directors of this era used as much of a freely moving camera as Fuller did. Although, where Ophuls' moving camera shots were graceful and used to punctuate the opulence of the subject matter; Fuller's aimed for a more visceral reaction. In a Fuller movie, these shots put you full force into the action. The fast moving camera during the battle sequences in Fixed Bayonets works to ape the feeling of the adrenaline rush that a soldier feels in combat.
This is not to say that this movie does not have aspects that are dated. Some viewers might be put off by the somewhat hokey character, Whitey (Skip Homeier), an absurdly erudite soldier who was clearly thrown in for comic relief. The other soldiers call him Mr. Belvedere, a reference to the character played by Clifton Webb in the movie series that started with Sitting Pretty (Side Note: Yes, this film series was the basis for the TV show "Mr. Belvedere". I saw Sitting Pretty and its two sequels as a kid, and remember them as being pretty enjoyable. (Second Side Note: Wow, I was an extremely lame kid.))
Initially, Fuller didn't want to make this movie. He had just directed The Steel Helmet and didn't want to make another Korean War film. Instead, he wanted to move on to his pet project, Park Row. Eventually, he gave in and directed Fixed Bayonets because of obligations to producer Darryl Zanuck. It is a testament to Fuller's genius that he could make an obligation picture that is every bit as thrilling and inventive as one of his passion projects. A lesser director would have just phoned it in, and cashed the check on his way to the more personal project. Fuller didn't believe in bullshitting his way through a job, however. Every picture had to matter, or else why the hell make it? He was truly a dedicated director of unrivaled genius. (Side note: This is the third war related movie in a row that I've covered. I need to start picking lighter fare.)