Director: Samuel Fuller
Screenplay: Samuel Fuller
Suggested by a Novel by: John Brophy
Starring: Richard Basehart, Gene Evans, Michael O'Shea
Running Time: 92 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
I've slowly been amassing quite a collection of reviews of Samuel Fuller films over my time as a blogger. He's a director whose films I'm always more than happy to watch so it doesn't take much convincing for me to say yes to a screener. However, I've given three of the four of his films I've reviewed here just over luke-warm ratings. I've mentioned this before in those previous reviews, but it always comes to mind when I approach a Fuller film and it's that Fuller's brash, bold style, as much as I enjoy it, can lead to their messages and writing feeling a bit blunt, spoiling the overall experience. Maybe I need to be in the right mood though, because Fuller's approach can work like gang busters. In particular, I'm a huge fan of Pickup at South Street (which I reviewed previously) and Shock Corridor. So, once again I ventured into Fuller's world hoping for a similar reaction as I put on Eureka's shiny new release of Fixed Bayonets!
Set during the Korean war, Fixed Bayonets! sees a platoon of American soldiers given an unenviable mission. Their regiment finds itself beaten down, trapped and forced to retreat from the area. With Korean soldiers all around them though, it's not as simple as just walking away. The regiment's best chance for survival is to leave a small platoon of soldiers behind to “look and sound like a regiment” so as to fool the enemy into thinking there's still a large American presence in the snowy and mountainous terrain. Basically put in the film, they are “48 men giving 15,000 a break”.
So this 'rear guard' is left to defend a small valley for a couple of days whilst they are bombarded by Korean mortar and sniper attacks. Among these soldiers is Corporal Denno (Richard Basehart), an intelligent man who has worked his way up the ranks quite quickly, but still hasn't killed a man in combat. As his handful of superiors are killed off one by one, he becomes increasingly frightened that he will have to lead the platoon himself.
Now I'm not always the biggest war movie fan. Although they're often quite powerful, I occasionally find them either heavy handed or offensive in glorifying war. With Fuller's in-your-face tendencies, I was worried either one or both of these issues might rear their heads here. However, his style actually works brilliantly. Fuller was a WWII vet himself so knew the horrors of war first hand and is known to have been open about his dislike of traditional war movies with their sentimentalism and gloss. In Fixed Bayonets! he uses his bold style to present a tough, matter of fact vision of the brutality and senselessness of conflict. Characters are killed off with little fanfare. In an early scene, the platoon walk past two bodies in a burnt out Jeep and the only notable reaction comes from a soldier getting excited about finding dry socks on one of them.
It's quite an action packed film and the set pieces are brilliantly handled with some impressive long takes occasionally used. A couple of minefield walks provide some excruciatingly tense moments and the sound of the guns and mortars in the attacks are frighteningly booming too, with the camera physically shaking with every impact. This gives an intensity to the action scenes, helping distract from the fact that the film is clearly shot on a set. With the unflinching results of the gun blasts and explosions shown, these scenes, as exciting as they are, don't feel like they're glorifying violence either.
The film isn't perfect though. As much as I love Fuller's straight-talking dialogue, it can be very on the nose. The worst culprit comes in occasional inner monologues you hear from the mind of Corporal Denno. These spell out things unnecessarily and come across as horribly clunky when they appear. Some of the performances can be a bit hammy too and several of the characters feel like war movie stereotypes. You get an annoying brainbox, a young wet-behind-the-ears recruit, a chirpy token minority and the good old seasoned vet. The latter, Sgt. Rock, is perfectly played by Gene Evans though, who commands the screen whilst displaying warmth and camaraderie when required.
Given the age of the film, a few stereotypes and clunky lines can be forgiven though. On the whole this is an intense, no-nonsense war picture that confidently treads a fine line between thrills and respect for the subject matter and those that lost their lives. It's a pleasure to see a war film that isn't derailed by sentimentality, clumsily shoehorned romantic side plots, political grandstanding or insensitive flag waving. Instead we get a tough film about men forced to deal with the harsh realities of life on the front line. It doesn't hurt that it's also rich with cinematic technique and thrilling action.
Fixed Bayonets! is out on now on Dual Format DVD and Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The picture and audio quality is excellent as usual for the label. There are a couple of soft shots that stand out, but I imagine they are due to the source material.
Other than the obligatory trailer and image gallery, the only feature of note is an audio commentary by film scholar Adrian Martin. This is well researched, interesting and easy to listen to, so provides more than enough supplementary material by itself.
As with all Masters of Cinema releases, you get a booklet in with the package too, which makes for recommended reading as always.