The year is 1951 and the Korean War has just begun, in fact as it’s early in the year the country is suffering the freezing effects of winter. American soldiers in this region are suffering too as the Koreans have the upper hand, and the General is forced to consider his options, either stay where they are and endanger many lives under his command, or reluctantly retreat, but even that brings up problems. They cannot simply turn tail and flee, they have to be more tactical than that, therefore he decides to leave behind a small company of men to make it appear to the enemy there is still a considerable presence willing to battle them. So who will be the unlucky few who save the rest?
Director Samuel Fuller had just enjoyed a major success with another Korean War movie, The Steel Helmet, when he was asked to make another in the same vein to cash in on its popularity. What he wanted to do was his film about the press, Park Row, but that would have to wait as 20th Century Fox insisted on Fixed Bayonets!, ostensibly an adaptation of a novel of the same name, though Fuller more or less invented his own story, as ever very much ploughing his own furrow as regards to what he wanted to create for the silver screen. The results were another hit, maybe not quite as big as the previous picture but enough to ensure he would be crafting the works he had his heart in rather than a gun for hire.
Many prefer The Steel Helmet to this, as if Fuller had pretty much delivered the definitive statement on the conflict and Fixed Bayonets! was an afterthought, but consider he went on to return to the subject of war time and again suggested it was more than that. He had served in World War II and those years in the services had proven a defining period in his life, rendering the situations and especially the dialogue in efforts like this with a ring of authenticity, even when, as here, the works were resolutely studio-bound and looked it. That said, the sets for this production were fairly impressive, rolling out a winter-bound landscape complete with cliff faces and caves for the brave few to take shelter in.
But it was the performances that really sold the drama here in a fine ensemble of an all-male cast, in particular Fuller regular Gene Evans as Sergeant Rock (presumably an influence on the war comics character of the same name) as one of the most identifiable types in this director’s war oeuvre, a tough guy, but pragmatic, fair and even when the mood takes him given to musing on the situation he has found himself in that demonstrated a reflective nature under that gruff exterior. Evans was matched in a decidedly unconventional Corporal played by Richard Basehart, a man who cannot bring himself to take a life yet and is dreading becoming officer material higher up the ranks, yet is being forced into taking charge when the soldiers are inexorably whittled down by the Korean gunfire and missiles.
This wasn’t a succession of scenes of soul-searching under fire, as Fuller knew the prime component of any war movie wasn’t necessarily telling you what you already knew, that war is hell, he had to provide action and suspense as well for that rounded cinematic experience. Scenes of hardboiled dialogue alternated with bombs and bullets flying as the Americans left behind are lambs to the slaughter, wondering if they will possibly survive this onslaught, and this could have bred a mood of impending doom, yet the script offered a perspective that these men were going to have glory foisted on them whether they wanted it or not, purely thanks to them setting their minds on doing the best job they can. This is what Corporal Denno must accept if he is to progress in this hellish environment, and the story is as much his journey as it was his troops', who in truth could be rather interchangeable. Oh, and James Dean in his debut was in her somewhere, trivia buffs. Music by Roy Webb.
[Eureka's Masters of Cinema release of this on Blu-ray (and DVD) is an immaculate restoration, with an audio commentary, trailer, gallery and subtitles as extras, plus a booklet with a contribution from Fuller's memoirs.]
Pioneering independent director, best known for his tough 60s thrillers. Fuller began his career in Hollywood in the mid-1930s, and after a spell in the army and many frustrated years as a writer, directed his first film in 1949, the Western I Shot Jesse James. Fuller's third film, The Steel Helmet, was the first movie to deal with the Korean war and was a huge success. Other films Fuller made in the 50s include Pickup on South Street, House of Bamboo and Run of the Arrow.
The 1960s saw Fuller deliver dark, ground-breaking thrillers like Underworld USA, Shock Corridor and the infamous The Naked Kiss, which divided critics with their mix of melodrama and brutal realism. Fuller subsequently found it hard to find employment in Hollywood and largely worked as an actor throughout the 70s. The 1980 war movie The Big Red One was something of a comeback, but his next film, the anti-racist White Dog caused yet more controversy, and it has rarely been seen in its intended form. Fuller's final feature was the 1989 crime drama Street of No Return, although he worked in TV until the mid-90s. Died in 1997 aged 86.