Why I Love… #104: Fixed Bayonets!

Year: 1951

Director: Samuel Fuller

Stars: Richard Basehart, Gene Evans, Michael O’Shea

Having worked his way up the ranks as a versatile screenwriter, Samuel Fuller ‘upgraded’ to the director’s chair and quickly took on the thankless appearance of a ‘journeyman’ director. This was years before the critical reappraisal that rightly recognised his craft and influence.

The term journeyman director applies to hardworking, no-nonsense craftsmen-for-hire, able to get the job done, regardless. Sturdy work, but perhaps unremarkable. Fuller fit the bill, but his work was always worthy of remark. He flitted from westerns to war pictures, even dabbling in some creative film noir (his justly adored Pickup On South Street). Still, his work transcends the moniker, which is often deployed disdainfully to imply a lack of creative character or authorial imprint.

Fuller had these qualities in spades. Operating at the peak of his powers through the 50’s and 60’s, his supposedly workmanlike output garnered praise and attention from – among others – French New Wavers like Jean-Luc Godard. Gradually, the world caught up, and the likes of The Crimson KimonoForty GunsShock Corridor and the aforementioned Pickup became part of the canon of great American movies.

Fixed Bayonets! rarely joins these titles in conversation, but it should, and it may be omitted because of the limited means of its production. Set in the mountains of China during the Korean War, Fuller’s film is actually a studio picture in the literal sense; filmed almost entirely on a sound stage. Fuller, then, was tasked with filming cheaply constructed interiors as authentic and hostile exteriors.

His success in this regard is remarkable. Fixed Bayonets! doesn’t suffer the stagy flat-floored appearance of TV fare (think so many cheesy Star Trek sets). His terrain is pocked with sharp drops, steep slopes and jutting rocks. In addition, the abundance of so much authentic snow (munched on by the film’s characters) sell the film’s reality and also allowed Fuller and his set decorators opportunity to further conceal their limited set. The crisp black and white photography helped them further.

So the stage is well-set. But I’m not just writing about Fixed Bayonets! for the scenery. I spent last year investigating a lot (but by no means all) of Fuller’s work, and Fixed Bayonets! is my favourite discovery so far. Written by Fuller – who did tours in the army himself before rocking up in Hollywood – the film is an embarrassment of riches, boasting diverse characters, cool suspense and thrilling action set pieces. In 90 minutes, Fuller proffers us all of these things. Fixed Bayonets! is a rounded and hugely entertaining movie, tightly packed and exceedingly memorable.

Fuller always aimed to throw people into the action from the first scene. Grab ’em by the collar, so to speak. In keeping, Fixed Bayonets! explodes into life with an overturning jeep. We’re thrown into the perilous situation within seconds. The premise here is simple; one platoon is required to remain behind as the majority of forces retreat. Their purpose, as ‘rear guard’, is to conceal the move; make the enemy believe that nothing has changed. It’s a thankless mission and Fuller barrels through the exposition like a necessary evil. From there we are introduced to the rank and file, and the real meat that Fuller wants to explore.

Corporal Denno (Richard Basehart) is just another grunt in the ranks, deliberately staying at a certain level to avoid unwanted responsibility. However, as enemy forces impinge on their location and casualties start to spike, Denno finds himself growing queasily close to a position of authority. The men of Fixed Bayonets! are all adults, but this still transpires to be something of a coming-of-age story.

The film flourishes from the sense of having been lived in. The camaraderie and in-joking between the troops is carefree and smacks of informal truthfulness. Here Fuller fondly acknowledges the tropes and stereotypes; witness the delivery of robotic know-it-all Gibbs (Craig Hill) and the gentle ribbing he gets from his colleagues, or a running joke about ownership of a pair of dry socks. The all-male cast feel bonded.

So Fuller ticks the ‘jolly romp’ box, before closing ranks for a mid-film set piece; one of the greatest examples of suspense I can recall seeing generated.

Earlier in the film, the soldiers establish that they’ve set up a comprehensive minefield nearby. Having been surprised by the enemy in close quarters, Sgt. Rock (Gene Evans) tumbles backward into the centre of the field (pointedly the only example of level ground in the platoon’s surroundings). Denno, wary that if Rock dies he’ll be closer to taking command, bravely volunteers to traverse the minefield to rescue him.

Fuller drops out all surrounding sound and hems the viewer in with baited breath. Whole bodies are cut up by the boxy Academy frame. Denno is reduced to a pair of boots edging gingerly forward across the ice and snow. His feet resemble the hooves of a deer stepping precariously out onto some unnatural surface. The grip of this sequence is astonishing, and shows Fuller’s robust ability to turn the tone of his work on a dime. Denno rescues the wounded Sgt. Rock from being stranded, but with typical Fuller irony, Rock has succumbed to his wounds by the time Denno gets him to ‘safety’.

Having given us the pomp of a buddy movie and edge-of-your-seat tension, Fuller closes out the picture with an action set-piece as enemy tanks storm our guys’ position. Denno, by this point in charge of the remaining men, has to not only outwit his enemies, but also lead the fire; another psychologically strained milestone for the man.

That Denno rises to both of these challenges could be read as pro-military or pro-war; that by the end of the picture he has fully assimilated with the mind-set and worldview expected of him and become the perfect soldier. But Fixed Bayonets! doesn’t feel as though it glamorises war. Fuller’s position, consistently, was that war is inherently insane and should be avoided at all costs. So how is this conveyed here?

Aside from the film’s stark and costly body count and the hardships these men endure for their task, it is perhaps exemplified in where Fuller leaves us. With mission accomplished the surviving men wade through ice water toward their collection point. To a man they look not relieved, but almost beaten. Even Denno, having risen to the challenges he feared through the whole movie, has a far-away look to him. The cost is personal. It is the erosion of self. By partly submerging his characters, Fuller gives this to us in purely visual terms; they are sunk, or incomplete. What’s missing might not have been mislaid for collection again later; it may simply have been irrevocably worn away. Thus Fixed Bayonets! ends in a conflicted place; part victory, part lament, but engrossing from start to finish.

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