Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Sam Fuller's third independent film The Steel Helmet was surprise major hit for Robert Lippert, Darryl Zanuck knew a wildcat filmmaker when he saw one, and hired the cigar-chomping director for a five-film string at 20th Century Fox. Sam's first writing & directing effort for the studio was Fixed Bayonets!, a more elaborate and perhaps more realistic return to the then-raging Korean War setting. Taken by surprise by a surge of new combatants from China, American forces suffered heavy losses before regaining the high ground.
Returning from The Steel Helmet is the quintessential tough G.I. Gene Evans. He plays the iconic Sgt. Rock, a gravel voiced tough nut with the guts to hold a patrol together no matter how hot the action. And we can tell that it's definitely a Sam Fuller picture, with other character names like Bigmouth, Zablocki, Griff, and Bulchek. Didn't anybody fighting in Korea have a wimpy name?
Under pressure from the Red Chinese, the entire division must retreat and regroup, and a special platoon is chosen to perform the rear-guard action. Experienced Sgt. Rock (Gene Evans) does what he can to break in young Cpl. Denno (Richard Basehart), who still can't imagine himself shooting a man in combat. Taking control of a narrow, snowy pass, the men do their best to avoid freezing while convincing the Reds think that they're holding the line in strength. A lot of lessons will be learned, and blood spilled, before the platoon can retire.
Any soldier or ex-G.I. in 1951 could tell that Sam Fuller knew of what he wrote, as Fixed Bayonets! overflows with dogface lore, lingo and philosophy. These riflemen are crack shots but they also pray at the altar of dry socks ... the 'most real' scene in the picture has eight guys crowding their bare feet into a mass and rubbing them to avoid frostbite. Sgt. Rock isn't as nihilistic as his previous Sgt. Zack, but he snaps out the same practical orders whenever someone catches a fatal bullet: "Strip him of everything we can use! Wrap him in a blanket! Bury him! Mark him!" Rock has the men make fake soldiers out of snow to draw enemy fire. He also freaks out the Reds by capturing and blowing one of their own bugles, but the cleverness works two ways. While some of his less trustworthy lookouts report nothing happening, a North Korean squad silently overpowers them in just a couple of seconds.
Some of Fuller's Fox pictures would become bizarre comic strip-like anti-Commie fantasies like China Gate and the anticipated Hell and High Water 1 but Fixed Bayonets! tones down the rhetoric. Sgt. Rock respects his enemy and refuses to shoot their medics, even though the Reds don't return the favor. About the strongest political remark is, "They said this is a police action. What are we, cops?"
Sgt. Rock should work for Hallmark, as he has a gritty comeback for every social situation. Being fired upon? "Spread out and dig for money!" Troops complaining? "See that? That's Jonesy's ear. Got shot off a couple of minutes ago!"
Fuller's ethnically diverse platoon rings true. Smart-talking wise guy Skip Homeier is a pain, but turns out to be a good squad member. Fuller stock player Neyle Morrow has to creep through a minefield, because the only map is on a wounded man stranded in the middle of the mines. Terrified medic Wheeler (Richard Hylton) successfully carves a bullet from out of his own leg and suddenly decides to try to help the other wounded men too. Richard Basehart watches with an amused expression; he pulled the same stunt in his career making He Walked by Night.
Richard Basehart stays cool as Denno, but dreads what may happen when he's called to take responsibility for the other soldiers. Sure enough, when everybody over his rank gets shot to bits, Denno's voice suddenly drops an octave and he morphs into the tough guy the platoon needs, 'becoming' a new Sgt. Rock. Necessity builds the man. The entire movie was filmed on one elaborate interior set by ace cameraman Lucien Ballard The Wild Bunch, on a crane that swoops up and down the hillsides as Gene Evans leaps from position to position. Shaved ice is put in the foreground of shots to augment the illusion of cold, which is well maintained considering that nobody on this freezing battlefield has frosty breath. The only flaws we see are a few errant shadows on the cyclorama backdrop. Sam is already trying to make do without enough set-ups, as a number of shots are manufactured through grainy optical blowups. And although he's backed off from the extremes of I Shot Jesse James, he often inter-cuts dramatic close-ups with mobile wide shots. No namby-pamby ordinary coverage for Sam.
Ever the patriot, Sam Fuller is to be commended for making in-Korea combat pictures when many producers were sticking with WW2 retread stories. Fixed Bayonets! premiered at Grauman's Chinese (as seen in a publicity still in the gallery) and apparently did well, cementing Fuller's standing with the like-minded production boss Darryl Zanuck.
Everyone rushes to mention that Fixed Bayonets! has the pre-fame James Dean in his first uncredited bit part. I was too entertained to check every face and missed him, but supposedly he's really there.
Fox's DVD of Fixed Bayonets! is a solid B&W transfer of elements in great condition. Audio is sharp and Roy Webb's martial themes are clear. A trailer is included that tries to suggest that 'the women they left behind' are somehow part of the story. These soldiers mostly talk about cold toes, not dames.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Fixed Bayonets! rates:
Supplements: Still Gallery, Trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 15, 2007
1. Hell and High Water: A secret UN fact-finding sub discovers that the Koreans have stolen a B-29 and are going to use it drop an A-Bomb on their own territory, as a way of starting WW3. China Gate: In Vietnam, seductress Lucky Legs (Angie Dickinson) leads a renegade patrol to blow up an ammo dump full of munitions secretly coming from China and Russia. Nat King Cole plays a soldier who says he doesn't know anything about Commies except he hates 'em. When it comes to politics, you can't get more in-your-face than Sam Fuller.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson
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