Sunday, July 27, 2014

Fixed Bayonets! (1951)

It’s 1951, and the Korean War is starting up rather nicely (which is to say, unpleasantly). The US forces have to withdraw after a costly battle, and it’s the job of an infantry platoon to hold off the enemy forces at a strategically important mountain pass for nine days while trying to look like a proper rear guard action instead of a suicide mission.

Not surprisingly, the platoon is slowly whittled down man by man. One of its members, Corporal Denno (Richard Baseheart), has to confront his greatest fear, that of commanding men (or really, one supposes, sending them to their deaths). He’s also not psychologically prepared to kill men in a face-to-face situation, which certainly doesn’t help his other problem any. But at least, Denno’s still outranked by veteran Sergeant Rock (Gene Evans), so the responsibility might never get to rest on his shoulders at all.

Fixed Bayonets! is generally seen as the lesser of Samuel Fuller’s two Korean War movies, but if you ignore The Steel Helmet (which is rather easy if you’re like me and haven’t actually seen that movie in a very long time), it’s not at all difficult to concentrate on Fixed Bayonets!’ virtues, particularly since these virtues are rather copious.

On paper, there’s a lot speaking against the film, particularly a budget low enough to see the film produced on an obvious sound stage, going quite against the sense of pseudo-realism war movies made after the end of World War II were usually aiming for. It is indeed at first an odd feeling to find a film whose script and dialogue that tend to the realist end of the spectrum as much as Fuller’s work here does taking place in so obviously fake surroundings. However, the strength of the script and dialogue and Fuller’s tight (there’s no wasted shot here, and the idea of filler seems totally preposterous) and often unexpectedly – for the surroundings not the director – dynamic direction soon help one over the mental disconnect. In fact, Fuller often uses the comparative smallness of his sets for mood building purposes, enhancing the claustrophobia of the characters’ situation with exactly the elements of his film that should hamper its effectiveness the most. Fuller is delivering a film that uses its deceptively simple set-up not just for some very effective scenes of suspense (take for example the mine field scene) made out of shadow, close-ups of actors’ faces and an obvious knowledge of the horrors of war that doesn’t need melodrama (except for some off-screen monologue). Melodrama is something the director sure as hell could indulge in if he just wanted, as more than one of his other movies shows, but I’m glad he chose to go for more psychologically direct approach here.

It’s not only Fuller bringing his best game to the movie, though. Baseheart and Gene Evans – the latter always a much better actor than his relatively minor reputation today might suggest – both give excellent performances that fit Fuller’s tight and focused direction style perfectly. The rest of the cast is equally good.

On the thematic and tonal level, Fixed Bayonets! is not at all interested in flag waving – in fact, the film visually suggests more than once there’s not much of a difference between the protagonists’ Chinese opponents – and its view of the concepts of heroism and courage are complex to say the least. Sure, Baseheart’s character does follow the expected arc from “coward” to “hero”, but the film makes it very clear it knows quite well that the melodramatic ideas of heroics or cowardice many war film directors (yes, that Spielberg guy too) cling to have nothing at all to do with the way human beings behave under pressure, the truths of fear (here seen in many a close-up on the faces of actors), or the moral implications of the “heroic” things people do in war. The film’s clearly conscious of the horror of the fact that Denno has to learn to kill to become a leader of men, and while it doesn’t disapprove of it with pacifist fervour, it lacks any sort of pleasure or satisfaction in it. It’s a film very much about the necessities of war, and with an all too clear idea what these might entail, with a sense of responsibility to others the only reason it can contemplate as even vaguely moral in the situations its characters find themselves in.

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