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In anybody else's filmography China Gate would be dismissed as hysterical political claptrap, a deliriously wrong-headed action thriller that could be re-titled Terry and the Pirates vs. Those Pesky Commies. The difference is that this 1957 20th-Fox distributed feature was written, produced and directed by Sam Fuller. The patriotic Fuller was a WW2 infantryman before becoming a film director; he was also a journalist and novelist committed who expressed his politics in very clear terms. The messages in his movies are not just sincere, they're seared into every scene. Fuller was wrongly called a 'cinema primitive' when he was really a cinema original, covering movie screens with blazing tabloid headlines. His movie pack so much energetic self-expression that the critic-directors of the French New Wave championed him even when they didn't agree with his politics. Jean-Luc Godard even gave Fuller a cameo in one of his films.
Fuller independently produced China Gate, which comes at the end of his string of 20th-Fox features. Basically a "lost patrol" type show about a secret mission deep into enemy territory, at several junctures it resembles Apocalypse Now. John Milius' original script for Apocalypse employed more of the same kind of comic book-like elements seen here. China Gate isn't as cartoonish as Fuller's crazy-wild atomic war fantasy Hell and High Water, but its hatred of Communism has gotten even stronger. In Fuller's superb Pickup on South Street Thelma Ritter declares that she hates Commies, even though she cannot articulate why. China Gate tells us that the answer is the insidious, evil, and downright sneaky Domino Theory.
Actually, in China Gate Sam Fuller's Cold War hostility shares equal emphasis with a sentimental racial theme. Somewhere in French Indo-China (read: Vietnam) the civilized legionnaires are holding out against the totalitarian butchers of the Viet Minh, thanks to Yankee relief airdrops. The French commander needs to send a commando team deep into the Viet-Chinese border hill country known as the China Gate, to locate and blow up those elusive
China Gate begins with an expository prologue that will be embraced only by those viewers that believe that America won in Vietnam, that the French colonial occupation was a good thing, and that the Vietnamese Communists were puppets fighting for Russia, and not to repel outside domination. Ho Chi Minh is dismissed as a thug and the last-ditch French campaign is honored as the region's one hope for Freedom against creeping Totalitarianism.
Fuller almost immediately slips into old-fashioned melodrama mode. Introduced in a famous shot of her impressive gams (in a side-slit Chinese Doll dress) stretched across the Cinemascope screen, Lucky Legs is soon seen running through the bomb rubble after a precious U.S. Aid parachute package -- in her high heels. Why, things are so tough that her son's cute dog is in danger of being eaten. Fuller sets up an antagonistic truce between Lucky Legs and Brock, who still can't stand the idea that his son would have Asian features (the dialogue carefully avoids typical pejorative descriptions of Asians). The patrol starts out on an extended hike through good-looking soundstage jungle sets, and various Southern California locations that might as well all be Griffith Park.
Lucky Legs gets the commando mission past river checkpoints and tree-house observation decks run by the Viet Minh; in each she finds a soldier who would like to sleep with her but who will settle for a bottle of liquor. None have any interest in politics. All Commie soldiers are slack-brained boozers, didn't you know?
The commandos get into a few fights and start losing team members. One breaks his back falling down a hill (great stunt) but lives long enough to deliver a sentimental, patriotic Fuller speech. There's plenty of talk, much of which focuses on Lucky Legs and Brock's domestic differences. Consider it as Marriage Counseling and Jungle Combat bundled together as a vacation package.
Keeping these talky passages from dragging is the inspired presence of the legendary pop singer Nat 'King' Cole. He sings the melodic title tune twice in the picture, but he's a different guy on the trail. Decked out in an Aussie bush hat and forever fiddling with his 'grease gun', Cole plays the mercenary Goldie, whose professed aim in life is to keep killing until there are no more Commies left in the world. He's of course a stand-up fighter. As ironic shorthand, Fuller makes Goldie the most gentle and humane of the commandos. Think Claude Akins in Merrill's Marauders, a brutal dogface who also sheds tears at the sight of a smiling child. This Goldie is even tougherÉ he must hold the record for ballsy stamina. Stepping on a Viet booby trap, he impales his foot on a 12-penny nail, yet keeps marching and fighting for at least two days. Coming from Sam Fuller, an ex-infantryman who stressed foot care as the key to survival in pictures like Fixed Bayonets!, Goldie's crippling injury is an interesting anomaly.
When Lucky Legs finally contacts Major Cham the film almost becomes an unintentional comedy. Lee Van Cleef's Commie leader is of course a sneering opportunist. If the French win, he'll go back to being a teacher (inference: never trust educators). If Ho wins the war, Cam will either be executed or be promoted to general and sent to Moscow! Like every other male in the movie, Cham wants Lucky Legs in his bed. He asks her to fetch her child and live with him in total happiness. Lucky Legs instead wants to get away so she can blow the whole China Gate depot sky high.
Gene Barry isn't much of an action hero but he does the anguished introspection stuff quite well. Angie Dickinson can muster the anger and swagger required to bluff her way among all the tin-pot soldiers, both ours and theirs. Her unlikely run-ins with the Commie guards are silly, but never too silly. Nothing can save the scenes with Lee Van Cleef, that now play as pure camp. The gravel-voiced Major Cham must rattle off eight pages of exposition. He practically hangs a sign on himself that reads, 'opportunistic hypocrite'.
As a production China Gate is not at all bad. Its ambitions exceed Fuller's budget, yet he and cinematographer Joe Biroc film the rented sets well, in some cases pulling expressive compositions and camera moves literally out of thin air. The jungle set is fairly generic. With the addition of a few wooden bombs on racks, the big cave at Bronson Caverns becomes the China Gate arms depot. It's stocked to the rafters with munitions that would require an air force to deliver. Cold War lesson # 34: When demonizing the enemy, make sure to overstate their fighting capability. The movie also uses five or six matte paintings that range from merely unlikely -- a view from China Gate shows an enormous valley beyond -- to patently fake. When the soldiers sneak past a row of ancient statues, the temple ruins around them look almost like a charcoal sketch. All in all, however, China Gate delivers the goods. Fuller stages a fairly active final shootout, with flame explosions in the background, etc. In the later Verboten! he can barely muster two soldiers and a jeep.
The film's bittersweet final images reinforce the racist 'paternal American' theme expressed in Douglas Sirk's Battle Hymn, and that would persist in establishment propaganda about Yankee-Vietnamese relations. 1 Brock walks off holding the little hand of the son he's finally learned to acknowledge, while Goldie smiles in approval. Yep, when the French toss in the baguette, America will take up the slack; no orphans will be left behind. John Wayne cribbed this finish for his awful The Green Berets: "C'mon, son! You're what this whole thing is all about!"
Olive Films' Blu-ray is the first opportunity most of us have had to see the, ahem, unique China Gate in its proper CinemaScope proportions. It is vastly improved over the old Republic Video VHS. Some scratches and dirt are evident and the CinemaScope logo is on the dull side, but most of the picture makes a striking graphic impact, right from the nicely designed title card.
More evident here than in any other Fuller film are shots that have optical zooms added in post-production. The picture gets bigger and slightly duller, with more granularity. It seems to be done to break up long dialogue scenes, not to facilitate cutting. It's hard to say if it was Fuller's choice to futz with shots in an optical printer, or if the moves were added by his distributor.
This is reportedly the last composing credit for Victor Young, whose melodic themes graced pictures like For Whom the Bell Tolls, Johnny Guitar and Three Coins in the Fountain. Young had a good batting average for title tunes, and the one for China Gate made a worthy Nat 'King' Cole release. It's not immediately clear how much of the score is Young's work, as a special credit indicates that his friend Max Steiner completed the job.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
China Gate Blu-ray rates:
1. In Universal's Battle Hymn, Korean War flyer Rock Hudson helps establish an orphanage. The unappealing, sanctimonious message is that he's to be thanked for blowing civilian refugees to smithereens on the roads, because it helps the war effort against those damn Commies. God approves, too. It's like something the Nazis might make, if they had won, to 'explain' the regrettable things that must be done in war.
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