Directed by Samuel Fuller
With Richard Basehart and Gene Evans.
A film is like a battleground. It’s love, hate, action, violence, death. In one word: emotion. –Samuel Fuller, appearing as himself in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le Fou
Samuel Fuller’s 1951 Korean war movie Fixed Bayonets does not have impressive special effects, a stylish script, in-depth characterization, or subtle acting, but it’s one of the greatest war films ever. It’s being shown in an excellent print at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Saturday and Tuesday in rare 35-millimeter showings. Fuller evokes the full horror of war, the randomness of death in battle. His narrative and visual choices support that theme: raw and open-ended, they’re utterly lacking the comfortable conclusions and simple moralizing of most war movies. Fuller’s later war films are more refined aesthetically but lack the jagged, crude power of this early masterpiece.
Set in Korea in early 1951, the film opens with an American division fearing a massacre as it retreats, so a rear guard platoon is left behind to trick the enemy into thinking the whole division remains–“48 men giving 15,000 men a break,” as the general puts it. We stay with the platoon, which includes the hard-bitten Sergeant Rock (Gene Evans) and a sensitive corporal, Denno (Richard Basehart), who hasn’t yet killed anyone and is chronically paralyzed when called to. The film focuses on the platoon’s attempts to fend off enemy probes until the division is safely across a river.
Fuller was a crime reporter in his teens, then an author of pulp novels and a World War II infantryman before directing his first movie in 1949. His films got little respect until the late 50s, when French critics such as Jean-Luc Godard began praising them, but since then others have mocked his work for lacking subtlety. In 1980, in Richard Roud’s Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, Gavin Millar called Fuller a “minor talent” whose films were characterized by “rather schematic plots” and “writing which rarely reaches above the level of popular journalism”; Roud appended a note saying he was “repelled” by Fuller’s “crudity and illiteracy.”
Like most American filmmakers, Fuller wasn’t interested in social forces or historical analysis but in individuals. And though his scripts do lack literary sophistication, the dialogue’s almost assaultive directness is a perfect match for his blunt images. Intense close-ups in an early scene in Fixed Bayonets, as the men watch the rest of their division retreat, capture their eye movements, emphasizing the loss, the physical and psychological isolation of those left behind.
Once the division has left, Rock offers some advice to his men: “A man on his belly out here looks like snow. A man standin’ up looks like a man.” This is one of many indications that war compromises one’s identity. At one point Rock tells his men to remove their shoes and socks and rub their feet for warmth and to check for frostbite. Thinking he’s rubbing Denno’s foot, he calls the medic, who tells Denno, “You’ve got it bad.” Then Denno stands up, and we see that Rock is rubbing his own frostbitten foot. A single take connects the men–and just as important, when the camera moves to isolate Rock, separates them. That it’s Rock who’s so out of touch with reality undermines his reliability, prefiguring the manner of his death: he’s killed by a ricocheting bullet in a cave after warning his men of that very danger.
The ultimate loss of identity is death, which Fuller–speaking of this film–described as “the thrill of war” and “the only thing I’m really interested in, because it’s the only mystery.” Feeling that the enemy is near, Rock uses his walkie-talkie to call a soldier, Griff, who reports that “nobody’s out here.” We cut back to Rock insisting, and then to Griff’s walkie-talkie–now in the hand of a Chinese soldier. In a classic Fullerian moment, a physical substitution destabilizes the viewer.
Unlike most war films, Fixed Bayonets never indicates which characters will get killed on the basis of who they are or what they’ve done. When a badly wounded sergeant, Lonergan, lies in the middle of a minefield his own men planted–the only map to the field with him–the unit’s medic (played by Fuller’s close friend Neyle Morrow) tries to rescue him. Stepping with great care across the field, this good man on a noble mission gets blown up when we least expect it. Then Denno begins his attempt. Fuller films both rescue efforts in head-on shots, cutting between Lonergan and the rescuer but only once giving a more “objective” view: a brief, ominous high shot. Here and elsewhere Fuller’s camera keeps us in each individual’s world, abjuring views of the geography of battle.
The film’s first two shots immediately assert that our expectations have nothing to do with what happens during a war. The opening is a typical establishing shot showing a roadway and a jeep driving toward us. Then Fuller cuts to a rare side-angle shot, a closer view of the road that creates a more intimate arena. Just as one expects the story to begin, the jeep blows up. Fuller once said that the problem with war films was that the audience was too aware that they were only movies, and that maybe the solution was to have people being killed right in the theater. His proposition is hyperbolic but indicates how much he wanted to throw the viewer off balance. In a related move, he had the set for Fixed Bayonets iced, then called the actors back in. “Were they surprised!” he said later. “Those falls, there’s no acting in them.”
The first battle scene is full of brief shots of men slipping, intercut with explosions, as the platoon takes shelter in a cave. Here and throughout the film, Fuller fills the frame with bluntly physical shots that emphasize the textures of rock and snow and the men’s faces. When a lone enemy soldier appears, Fuller pulls his camera rapidly away from him across the ice. This short but stunning shot traps the man in a small space in the cinematic equivalent of Rock’s injunction not to think of the Chinese and North Koreans as men but as the enemy.
One might well object to the way Fuller dehumanizes the enemy. But by extension our enemies too are subject to the horrors of the battlefield, which Fuller conveys so vividly. He refuses to sentimentalize war, omitting touching speeches and last looks at photos of fiancees. But his scenes can have immense emotional power. Perhaps the strongest in Fixed Bayonets comes when Rock is shot, when he tells the panicked Denno–who doesn’t want to become platoon leader–“I’m dead.” Evans delivers this line in the same clear, forceful voice he’s used throughout, but he’s speaking from that shadowy world between life and death. Most war films show explosions, but few have the toughness of Fuller’s blast in the face.