A fairly obscure film directed by the great Samuel Fulller in 1957, China Gate is interesting not only because it features a legitimately unusual cast but because it's one of the first Hollywood productions to deal with the Vietnam War. The film follows a woman nicknamed Lucky Legs (Angie Dickinson), a woman of European and Chinese descent who runs an opium den. Legs has got a good little business going, she also serves up booze and, for the right price to the right customer, women as well. She's got a kid (Warren Hsieh) who, early in the film, tries to save his puppy from a Saigon local who wants to steal it and cook it up. There's a food shortage going on and that dog is looking mighty tasty. This sets the type of mood, atmosphere and political tone for pretty much the rest of the movie.
Soon enough, Legs is approached by one Colonel De Sars (Maurice Marsac) who has a proposition for her - he wants her to lead his group of special forces soldiers out of Saigon to the so called China Gate, an area where the Chinese and Vietnamese borders meet that is rumored to be the location of a massive Viet Minh ammunition stash. In exchange for this, De Sars will use his connections to get Legs' son safe haven in the United States - Saigon is too dangerous a place for even someone like her to be raising a kid these days. Legs knows where this place is, in fact she even has a relationship with the man who is in charge of it, one Major Cham (Lee Van Cleef). This is all well and good until Legs meets Johnny Brock (Gene Barry), the American soldier picked to lead the mission and her husband, who has been absent for some time now. He split when their kid was born, not sure what to do about the fact that he was obviously of mixed race. Brock puts his team together, highlighted by the inclusion of a tough talker named Goldie (Nat King Cole), and off they go to save the day, a group of soldiers lead through dangerous enemy territory by their leader's grumpy wife in hopes that they'll be able to get there alive, blow up the ammunition stash and make it back to safe territory in one piece.
China Gate is a pretty melodramatic action picture that paints in very broad strokes indeed. Every 'commie' in the movie is a weasel, the Asian characters eat dogs and have 'Asian eyes' that cause their whitebread fathers to panic and abandon them and only the brave Western mercenary soldiers are able to save the day. Fuller's politics are a bit sloppy here, you get the impression that he was out to prove his own patriotism with this film. It's an angry picture, nasty at times, really but evaluated as a product of its time, the film is entertaining enough. Dickinson's foxy character is able to sweet talk pretty much every communist soldier she comes across by flirting with them, allowing easy take downs at the various checkpoints that she and the crew has to pass through along the way to their final destination. We never really get a serious sense of danger, but there are a couple of impressive action set pieces here and there. A few of the group are taken out as they get closer to their destination but we're not given enough in the way of legitimate character development to really care all that much when it happens.
The movie is very nicely shot, however. Though the American locations and soundstages used to double for Asia aren't always effective the black and white cinematography has a gritty, sweaty quality to it that fits the tone of the story well. Dickinson is plenty easy to look at here and seems to be having fun in the role, while Gene Barry is grouchy and tough. Nat King Cole steals most of the scenes he's in, bringing Goldie to life with far more conviction and screen presence than anyone else in the movie bothers to bring to the picture. Lee Van Cleef is unintentionally funny as an Asian communist though he and Dickinson have some interesting dialogue together, the kind that makes it obvious Fuller is wearing his politics on his sleeve. If you don't have to take this movie seriously, it's enjoyable enough. Fuller certainly made much better films but this one is just weird enough to be worth a watch. Cole's rendition of the theme song used not once but twice in the movie is impressive and as a relic of this has quite a bit of interest. Fuller also gets full marks for an unexpected but wholly appropriate ending and Victor Young's score, his last, is also impressive.
For a film from 1957, presented here without a whole lot of restoration (if any), China Gate looks quite nice on Blu-ray in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 2.35.1 widescreen. There's a nice amount of natural looking film grain present that results in a very film like presentation without the picture ever looking deteriorated or dirty because of it. Texture is good and black levels are strong, with very nice shadow detail making the photography stand out here. Contrast generally looks dead on and while some minor print damage does show up in the form of some occasional small specks and a scratch or two here and there, overall the elements used for the transfer were obviously in excellent shape. Take note that the frequent use of stock footage in the film itself does result in a couple of transitions that go from nice, slick looking material shot for the movie itself to less than perfect looking inserts from stock sources, but you can't really fault the transfer for that. Overall, this image is a strong one.
The no frills English language DTS-HD Mono track is problem free. Though there are no alternate language options, closed captioning options or subtitles provided the track is nice and clean. Properly balanced from start to finish there are no problems with any hiss or distortion though the explosions that occur during some of the action scenes are a bit on the weak side. The range is a bit limited, as any mono track would be, but the score sounds really good and there's a fair bit more depth here than you might actually anticipate. A couple of times, again during the action scenes, a few lines of dialogue get a bit buried but overall, the movie sounds pretty good.
Aside from a static menu and chapter selection, there are no extra features at all on this Blu-ray disc from Olive Films.
China Gate isn't going to be remembered as a highpoint in Fuller's directorial career but it's got a pretty interesting cast and in spite (or maybe because) of its goofiness, it's pretty entertaining if really only on a surface level. This is an obscurity, a curiosity item for Fuller fans and those curious about seeing one of the first pictures to deal with the Vietnam War. Olive's Blu-ray contains no extras features but it does look good and sound good. Recommended for Fuller completists, a decent rental for the masses.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.