The Film: 4/5
During the Korean War, forty-eight American soldiers out of a 15,000-strong Army regiment to form a platoon that will provide cover in a narrow, snowy mountain pass for the rest of the regiment to move out safely. Sergeants Rock (Gene Evans) and Lonergan (Michael O’Shea) are given command of the platoon and the troops go to work fortifying their defenses with weaponry and landmines. The Koreans begin to make their advance on the Americans’ position and start cutting down the cold and weary dogfaces one by one. It falls to Rock, Lonergan, and Corporal Denno (Richard Basehart) to pull the surviving grunts together and keep their spirits up and their minds focused on the task at hand, but Denno is initially reluctant to take on a position of authority if it means laying down his life for another. The young corporal begins to accept the responsibility of leadership in the face of overwhelming odds.
During World War II, films about combat set in the European, Pacific, and African campaigns were made to entertain audiences, fund the war effort, and serve as propaganda that would continuously sway civilian hearts and minds into supporting the ongoing military action. Samuel Fuller had seen his share of wartime horror as a soldier and funneled his experiences into novels and screenplays, most of which he would adapt into his own feature films once he began a legendary directing career in the late 1940’s. After making his first two movies for independent producer Charles Lippert, Fuller made The Steel Helmet, a hard-edged Korean War combat drama that earned great reviews and better box office and briefly made the uncompromising director a person of interest to the Pentagon and J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I. at a time when the Red Scare was fueling coast-to-coast anti-communist paranoia.
The critical and financial success of The Steel Helmet made Fuller for a while the hottest directing talent in Hollywood. He made films like no other; his stories were deprived of mawkish, cheap emotions and starred interesting and well-rounded characters who spoke in short sentences that made their point fast but often left much unsaid. Fuller knew how to make fast, brutal pulp thrill rides that moviegoers could enjoy both viscerally and intellectually; they never talked down to their audiences, but rather chose to inform them, and took place in worlds where morality was all gray areas and good people often performed unspeakable acts because they were necessary. The filmmaker had been a newspaper reporter in his pre-war years and he developed a keen eye for the way real human beings behaved and communicated with one another. Between working the crime beat in New York and battling the Axis Powers as a loyal but honest soldier of the United States Military, Sam Fuller lived a more interesting life than the average person, and that was before he first took command of his own film set.
Fuller was lured to 20th Century Fox by studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck, a fellow WWII vet who had traveled across Europe and Africa making battlefield documentaries as a colonel in the Army Signal Corps, with a seven-picture contract that would allow for him to make more hard-hitting motion pictures with almost total creative freedom and limited studio interference. He had wanted his next film to be Park Row, a drama about the birth of modern journalism in the late 19th century, but Zanuck convinced him instead to make another feature centered on the Korean War in order to undermine efforts from competing studios to create Steel Helmet imitations.
Fuller concocted the story that would become Fixed Bayonets, an effective drama that functions as both a compelling companion piece to Steel Helmet and a harrowing and claustrophobic tale of confined combat all its own. Forced to remain behind on an icy ridge to fight off the advancing Korean forces, Bayonets’ infantrymen are some of the most realistic and cliché-free portrayals of men at war ever seen in a film, even though few of them get to stand out as characters. Principal photography was primarily conducted on soundstages located on the fabled Fox backlot, with convincing sets constructed by some of the studio’s best craftsmen in order to give Fuller a stable locale to allow for the director and his cast to focus on action and performances and not have to worry about weather conditions that might cause the budget to escalate. Although there are instances when the production appears obviously stage bound, the fear and isolation conveyed by the cast are enough to get the audience’s attention on their plight and off the filming limitations.
The central character Denno is played with stone-faced assurance by Richard Basehart – the star of Fellini’s La Strada and John Huston’s Moby Dick – and he really shines in the moments where Denno comes into his own as a leader ready and willing to sacrifice his life to save that of a soldier under his command. Fuller selected Gene Evans, another fellow war vet who starred in Steel Helmet as the undaunted Sergeant Zack, to play the gruff and authoritative Sergeant Rock (an inspiration for the DC Comics hero perhaps?), a hero to his men who isn’t afraid of being blunt and cold to them in their time of need and an expert when it comes to keeping the body healthy and alert on the battlefield. Evans is terrific and gets to inject some detached humor into his impassive, determined grunt. Michael O’Shea completes the lead trifecta with a fine performance as the platoon’s other sergeant, Lonergan, while other roles are realized with skill and professionalism by a solid supporting cast (including an uncredited James Dean, filling out a bit part as an anonymous grunt).
The bleak, uncluttered cinematography was achieved by the great Lucien Ballard, who would go on to shoot classics such as Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, the original True Grit, and Sam Peckinpah’s masterpiece The Wild Bunch. Ballard’s camera captures the pensive, frightened faces of the soldiers in a series of tight close-ups that tell us more about these men than a well-written dramatic monologue could ever hope to accomplish. Fuller made use of some of Fox’s best in-house creative talent in post-production, including editor Nick DeMaggio (Night and the City), make-up artist Ben Nye (Planet of the Apes), photographic effects artist Ray Kellogg (The Rope), and the studio’s revered musical department head Lionel Newman. The technical work by all involved is exemplary.
Fixed Bayonets was another solid theatrical smash for Fuller, and by this point in his career he felt emboldened to tackle his dream project. Park Row was funded independently, with most of the budget coming out of the director’s own pockets, and was released nationwide by United Artists the following year. Despite earning glowing reviews, the film was a box office flop and proved Zanuck’s instincts about its financial prospects were right on the money. At least Fuller made a film he could be proud of, and in fact he considered Park Row his best work, and he returned to Fox fully confident in his abilities as both writer and director. During his years with the studio, he made some of his best films, including the noirs Pickup on South Street and House of Bamboo, the psychologically complex western Forty Guns, and the Indochina War adventure China Gate. Fixed Bayonets remains one of the best films Fuller made behind the gates of 20th Century Fox, a balls-to-the-wall combat drama that proved its director’s philosophy that the only true glory of war is surviving more effectively than most films cut from similar cloth.
Eureka’s dual-layered 1080p high-definition transfer of Fixed Bayonets is sourced from 20th Century Fox’s new 4K scan and restoration and is presented in the film’s original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The AVC encoded transfer is a huge improvement over the studio’s past Region 1 DVD release and sports a fine layer of grain to preserve the filmic texture along with strong, balanced black levels and few noticeable traces of permanent print damage. Close-up shots display an impressive upgrade in detail. The Blu-ray comes armed with an uncompressed 24-bit English PCM 2.0 monaural audio track that keeps the dialogue audible and the active use of gunfire and explosions in the battle scenes front and center. Optional English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing have also been included.
There are few supplements in this set, but what we get is both enlightening and substantial. First off there’s a wonderfully insightful new audio commentary by Australian film scholar Adrian Martin that is rich in critical analysis and appreciation for Fixed Bayonets, Sam Fuller’s filmmaking philosophy, his classic works of the screen, and the dark and compelling history behind them. Held over from Fox’s 2007 Region 1 DVD (part of their short-lived “Fox War Classics” series) are the original theatrical trailer (2 minutes) and a stills gallery.
Eureka has also included a booklet featuring the new essay “Not a Corporal for Nothing: The Hell of Fixed Bayonets” by film critic Glenn Kenny and an excerpt from Fuller’s autobiography A Third Face detailing the making of the film. Finally, we get a bonus Region 2 DVD copy with a standard-definition transfer of the main feature and the accompanying extras.
Fixed Bayonets is a tense, gripping portrait of the harsh realities of war and the long-term effect they have on those fortunate enough to go home alive. Writer-director Samuel Fuller, a master of unsentimental powerhouse action cinema, wouldn’t have it any other way. As part of their invaluable Masters of Cinema, Eureka has done very well by this underappreciated minor classic of the war movie genre with a stellar new 4K high-definition transfer and some worthwhile supplements. Highly recommended.