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Rear guard action
A UK region 2 DVD review of FIXED BAYONETS! by Slarek
 

The first photograph I ever saw of Sam Fuller pictured him with a cigar in one hand and an automatic pistol in the other, which he was pointing skyward. He wasn't acting or indulging in recreation, but directing. Word has it that instead of shouting "Action" he would fire the pistol in the air. It's the sort of story that cult legends are built on, but in Fuller's case was almost definitely true. Fuller was a genuinely larger than life character who lived up to the image most seem to have of him. And I'm talking from first hand experience here.

Some years ago I had the genuine pleasure of attending an interview with Fuller at the National Film Theatre to mark the release of The Big Red One. It's a fascinating experience to look back on, for at this time the cult surrounding Fuller's work was barely large enough to qualify as a cult at all, and the interview was so poorly attended that those of us not seated right at the front were encouraged to move forward so that the cinema would seem less empty. Just a few years later the combined praise of directors such as Martin Scorsese, Jim Jarmush and Quentin Tarantino had prompted a major rediscovery of Fuller's work, and the same event would have filled this sizeable venue three times over.

One of the things I'll always remember was Fuller's entrance. There was none of the careful stage management I'd witnessed at other such interviews – following a screening of the opening scene from The Big Red One, the lights went up to reveal Fuller, dressed in a loud shirt and, if I remember correctly, holding his trademark cigar, standing halfway down the central aisle and shouting back at those who had directed him towards the stage "Where do I go? Down here?" He answered questions directly, entertainingly and without a hint of pretension. Asked what his idea of a good crew was he replied "I tell them what I want, I go off, and when I come back it's done!" Later he listened patiently to an interminably long question whose complexity bordered on gibberish, then turned to his host and cried in exasperation "What did he just say? I didn't understand what he said!" How could you not love this man?

I'd be willing to bet that Fixed Bayonets! was one of the films where that pistol was fired to get the actors moving. It's exactly the sort of film that helped secure Fuller's reputation as a director of tough, well-told action movies whose technical handling and attention to detail lifted them way above their sometimes B-movie production values. And if you're looking for evidence of Fuller's influence on Scorsese and his contemporaries, then search no further. But I'll come to that. Fuller's stamp is on a lot more that the camera movements and editing.

Fixed Bayonets! starts with a textual salute to the US Infantry that sets the story in 1951 Korea, then moves on to live action to blow a jeep full of them off the road and introduce us to a tent full of officers with a difficult decision to make. Their division is facing certain defeat if they don't retreat, but actually doing so is not so simple. If the enemy get wind that they are on the run then they are likely to attack in force. The commander decides they must leave one company of just 48 men as a rear guard, their job being to convince the opposing forces that the entire division is still present while the majority make their way to safety. One of those charged to remain, reluctant corporal Denno (Richard Basehart), has a deep rooted fear of command, but as those who outrank him begin falling victim to enemy fire, the possibility looms that he may have to take charge of the company.

It may read like the setup for a standard story of finding your inner hero in time of war, but even in that short synopsis there are a couple of things that do not play by the war movie manual. For a start there's an up-front acknowledgement that things did not always go well for US troops in this particular conflict, that sometimes they were outgunned and outmanoeuvred and that standing and fighting to the death was not always the logical option. This sort of cinematic honesty has become a familiar ingredient of post-Vietnam war movies, but it's important to remember that Fixed Bayonets! was made and released in 1951, when American troops were still fighting in Korea and still suffering losses. And while the enemy forces are almost inevitably referred to as either 'Reds' or 'Commies', this is honest soldier speak rather than right-wing sermonising, and the enemy soldiers are never caricatured or demonised, but instead shown as a relentless but professional and potentially deadly force to be reckoned with.

Although the narrative arcs are built around Denno, he is just one soldier in a distinctly drawn ensemble group that includes a few genre favourites, some of whom would only become so in later years. The agitated Italians and the dryly amusing intellectual Whitey would sit just as comfortably in Fuller's 1980 The Big Red One, but just how many war movie platoons can you think of that include a Cherokee Indian? A likeable and varied bunch, the soldiers' breezy interaction is one of the film's real pleasures and one that gives it a surprisingly contemporary edge. This is echoed in Fuller's direction, which takes advantage of the snowbound studio set to repeatedly get Lucien Ballard's crane-mounted camera on the move, covering entire sequences in single, highly mobile and sometimes complex shots that are never designed to draw attention to themselves.* Elsewhere a combination of Ballard's camera placement and Nick DeMaggio's editing are combined to nail-biting effect, the sequence in which Denno has to cross an ice-covered mine field to reach his wounded superior being an object lesson in how to grind an audience into its seats. The use of facial close-ups to connect us with the emotions and humanity of the platoon members – notably in the remarkable sequence in which the rear guard watch silently as their comrades slowly make their retreat – is up there with the final sequence of Kubrick's Paths of Glory, which Fuller's film predates by six years. The film even anticipates some of the genre's later visual ticks, with white flash frames used to emphasise artillery fire and the camera itself shaken by the impact of the shell blasts. That both were created in post-production is neither here nor there.

Fuller engages us with his characters by defining them quickly and clearly and giving them interesting things to say and do, and with the plight of the company as a whole by focussing on the basics of survival rather than the politics of this particular war, which the universality of the story renders largely irrelevant. His no-nonsense approach to the violence is sometimes startling, the ferocious fire-fights kicking off without warning and explosions triggered so close to the actors that I'd be amazed if there weren't on-set injuries as a result. That Denno's boy-to-man journey is a little predictable does not harm a film in which the surrounding action is so involving, while the intermittent and largely unnecessary dips into his thought processes are later rather neatly expanded to include the musings of all the surviving company members and capped by an unexpected moment of left-field comedy.

Widely recognised as one of the essential Sam Fuller films (in the recently reviewed Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, it's one of the two Fuller films that Quentin Tarantino ties himself up in knots of frustration at the memory of not being able to see), Fixed Bayonets! thoroughly deserves both that reputation and the exclamation mark in its title. Its combat is realistic and hard-hitting, its characters engaging and its grip unwavering, while the dialogue and performances manage a neat balancing act between naturalism and stylised-smart. There are a fair few equally qualified candidates, but if you're looking for a film that defines just why Sam Fuller is held in such high esteem by modern filmmakers, then Fixed Bayonets! should definitely be on the shortlist.

sound and vision

Framed 1.33:1, which is as close to dammit to the shooting ratio of 1.37:1, this is another of those black and white films from the 1950s that leaps to life on DVD, the spot-on contrast and fine detail giving the greyscale images a richness that VHS could only dream of. The print has also been impressively cleaned up, and despite the film's age there's hardly a dust spot or mark to be seen.

The Dolby 2.0 mono sound is also rather good for its vintage, displaying pleasing clarity and a not bad dynamic range.

extra features

None. A shame.

summary

Fixed Bayonets! is a cracking early Fuller film, for its character interplay and tensions, for its roving camerawork, for the sheer tension of that iced minefield sequence, for its vigorously staged action, and for its brisk storytelling. It even gave James Dean his first, brief film role, though you'll probably need a second viewing to spot him. Optimum's disc is light on extras, but the price is good and if you are not familiar with the cinema of Sam Fuller then this is a damned fine place to start.



* I have no doubt that Fuller saw this as a purely practical move to save time. When asked about the possible surrealist influence on the shot of the statue of Christ with ants crawling over its face in the opening sequence of The Big Red One at the above mentioned NFT interview, he replied "There were ants on it when we got there and it looked interesting so we filmed it."


By the way, here's that picture of Fuller that kicked off the review:

Fixed Bayonets!

USA 1951
88 mins
director
Samuel Fuller
starring
Richard Basehart
Gene Evans
Michael O'Shea
Richard Hylton
Craig Hill

DVD details
region 2
video
1.33:1
sound
Dolby 2.0 mono
languages
English
subtitles .
none
extras
none
distributor
Optimum
release date
3 September 2007
review posted
2 September 2007

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