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Writer/director Samuel Fuller is possibly best known for his World War Two movie The Big Red One. Before he made that war flick he served as an infantryman during the war and made two movies set during the Korean War. One of them is Fixed Bayonets, which has been re-released by Eureka Entertainment as a part of the Masters of Cinema series.
Fixed Bayonets focuses on a platoon assigned to guard a mountain pass from the oncoming Chinese forces. Their mission is to act as a rear guard action to protect an army withdrawal. One of these soldiers is Corporal Denno (Richard Basehart) who is fourth in the chain-of-command to lead the platoon and his responsibility edges closer as his senior officers start to die.
Fixed Bayonets was made in collaboration with the Department of Army partly as a response to Fuller’s previous war movie The Steel Helmets which they had objections to. The tagline for the movie was ‘Bayonets ALL STEEL… Hearts ALL AMERICAN… Their Story… ALL GLORY!’ This gives you a sense of the type of movie Fixed Bayonets is going to be – a movie that plays to a patriotic American crowd. The general of the army is a hard-as-nails figure that does not let his jeep being blown up stop him and when he orders the rear guard action he does it with a heavy heart, seeing it as a necessary evil, while the troops who do the fighting see what they are doing as an action necessary for the greater good. The soldiers speak the mantra that ‘it takes guts to lead’, perform brave acts and the music has military style to it.
The movie is at its best when it focuses on the soldiers and their personal interactions with each other as they share their experiences and what their aspirations are when they return to America. The soldiers have distinctive personalities from the know-it-all, to the gruff veteran to the foreigner serving in the US Army. This is reminiscent of other great war movies like All Quiet on the Western Front and Saving Private Ryan. The most memorable are Basehart as Denno and Gene Evans as Sergeant Rock. Denno has doubts about his abilities involving leadership and soldiering – as he says he can take an order but can’t give one. An early scene involving Denno shows he is unable to shoot a Chinese soldier but gives a young soldier a pep talk after he does the deed. Rock is a gruff, cigar chewing soldier who offers Denno advice about leadership, the duties of a soldier and tactical advice. Their friendship becomes the heart of the movie.
Fuller and his team go to great efforts to avoid going into the politics of the conflict – a wise decision considering the Korean War was happening at the time of the movie’s production. The Chinese soldiers are referred as The Reds and there is a line that the Chinese shoot at American medics: an action we do not see. For the most part, the Chinese soldiers are portrayed in a neutral light, men simply doing their duty. Nor do any soldiers make grandstanding statements about why they are fighting in Korea, the need to the stop the red menace or see it as a pointless mission.
One of the best features of Fuller’s direction is when he focuses on characters faces – so we can their reactions during pivotal moments. These little moments give an insight into how the soldiers were feeling at the time, for instance, when the rest of the army leaves and the soldiers that are left behind have looks of worry. It was a small but powerful touch. Fuller was also able to add tension to a scene like when Denno goes into a minefield to save a superior officer – the camera focuses on every step and the looks of stress and concern on all the soldiers.
Despite the movie being set in Korea during the dead of winter, Fixed Bayonets was actually filmed on a sound stage in California. This was obvious with the way the backgrounds looked flat and actors’ breath is suspiciously absent. The battle scenes were a series of skirmishes – actions where the communist forces test out the strength of the American platoon.
Fixed Bayonets works best as a small character driven war movie looking at men united together in the face of battle with a sense of authenticity. Yet Fixed Bayonets is a lightweight entry in the war movie genre.
Special Features: The Blu-ray comes with an audio commentary by Adrian Martin – an associate professor in Film Culture and Theory at Monash University in Australia, the original theatrical trailer, English subtitles for deaf and hard-of-hearing and a booklet.