Learning From The Masters Of Cinema: Samuel Fuller's FIXED BAYONETS!
Released in 1952, Fixed Bayonets! marked the first studio picture directed by Samuel Fuller, and his second in a row that would depict the still-in-progress Korean War. After the surprise success of the independently produced The Steel Helmet, Fuller met with all the major studio heads - Jack Warner, Louis B. Mayer et al - all of whom were eager for him to repeat his success on a modest budget.
Only Darryl Zanuck asked Fuller about the stories he wanted to tell and pledged to use box office profits to finance better movies in the future. Fuller, a former newsman and screenwriter, had found his new home, and signed on to make six pictures with the studio. What he didn’t want to do, however, was make another Korean War movie. Zanuck inevitably got his way, albeit at Fuller’s insistence that “I want to shoot the entire picture on one goddamned hill covered in snow.” With the assistance of art director Lyle Wheeler, who had won the Oscar for Gone With The Wind, Fuller got his set and Zanuck got his movie.
The fifth of Fuller’s films to be released by the Masters of Cinema - after Forty Guns, White Dog, Pickup On South Street and Park Row (DVD only) - Fixed Bayonets! has been given predictably doting attention. Both in Adrian Martin’s excellent commentary and Glen Kenny’s essay, it becomes clear that critics, academics and fans alike feel compelled to justify their love for Sam Fuller. Or rather, that there is a preconceived notion that Fuller is a lesser filmmaker, undeserving of a place in the upper echelons of cinema’s great auteurs.
It is easy to see what they mean too. Fuller often works within identifiable genres and there is certainly a pulpy bent to his narratives. His dialogue is blunt and brutal, cutting to the heart of his themes the way a punchy headline might, rather than an allegorical poem. Technically, Fuller shows great flair and versatility, as comfortable with long crane shots weaving through the action as with close-ups so uncomfortably tight his actors risk fogging up the lens or spraying it with vitriolic spittle.
The filmmaking of Sam Fuller addresses its themes head-on, leaving no viewer in doubt of where his opinions and motivations lie. Rarely does Fuller leave a story open to interpretation, and on occasion has even been accused of hammering home his messages with a lack of subtlety. This can also be applied to his technical bravado. Fuller’s invention with the medium - be it through movement, editing or framing - breaks as many conventions as it embraces, to such a degree that some might accuse him of lacking dexterity. But fans will argue the contrary.
Fixed Bayonets! is a perfect example of a Fuller film. It tells the story of a platoon of infantrymen who must stay behind and perform a rear guard action, while the rest of the UN forces retreat. Setting up atop a narrow passageway between the mountains, Sergeant Rock (Gene Evans), Corporal Denno (Richard Baseheart) and their men - including James Dean in one of his very first screen roles - must keep the advancing Korean army at bay until the rest of the troops are safely out of harm’s way. It’s a suicide mission, and they all know it.
Fuller was himself a veteran of World War II - which he would address directly in The Big Red One - and was eager to dismantle Hollywood’s romantic image of soldiering and combat. He strongly believed that the only victory in war was survival, and fought hard to imbue his characters with the same fear, doubt and questionable motivations that he had felt himself and seen firsthand on the battlefield. Needless to say, these sentiments and depictions were not always shared by the studio or the military, who offered support and technical advice to Fuller on many of his films, but the journalist in him strove to tell the truth and more often than not won out.
On the one hand a simple story of young men staring down the barrel of their own imminent demise, Fuller manages to inject his film with a staggering amount of honesty and pathos. Corporal Denno in particular is portrayed as second in the chain of command, yet paralysed by his inability to take another man’s life. Gene Evans, who had previously appeared in The Steel Helmets, plays Rock with a resigned worldweariness, and has fully embraced the fact that his life exists only in this current moment.
Perhaps most impressive, however, is how Fuller milks his set for all its worth. Save for a few minutes at the beginning and end of the film, everything takes place on a single hillside or within the relative shelter of a cave in which the men shield themselves from enemy mortars. Fuller injects flourishes of stylistic and narrative invention throughout the proceedings. An elaborate single shot sees a lone soldier negotiate the slopes to take out an enemy position; a ricocheting bullet inside the cave destroys the men’s veneer of safety; a brutal rocket attack on an enemy tank is edited with rigorous intensity. It's a tough, on the nose piece of filmmaking.
The dual-format release of Fixed Bayonets! from The Masters Of Cinema showcases a flawless new 4K restoration from Fox that looks and sounds like the film is brand new. Adrian Martin’s aforementioned audio commentary is a fascinating balance of production history, thematic exploration and technical appreciation for Fuller’s film. The booklet includes Glen Kenny’s essay, which grounds the film within Fuller’s larger body of work, as well as an extract of the director’s own writing about the film from A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking. The result is an essential release of a quintessential Samuel Fuller film.
Fixed Bayonets! is available in the UK from the Masters of Cinema on a dual-format Blu-ray/DVD release now.