By Daniel Barnes
Fixed Bayonets! (1951; Sam Fuller)
War movies are an indigenous territory for a director who liked to describe cinema as a battlefield. However, Fixed Bayonets! is a little more limited by its genre and commercial obligations. It’s about an outnumbered platoon given a suicidal task: mask their battalion’s retreat by making the enemy think they haven’t even left. It doesn’t take long for the bullets to start flying. As officers get picked off one by one, the pressure falls on the cowardly Cpl. Denno (Richard Basehart) to take command.
The Cpl. Denno stuff feels pretty standard-issue and predictable. Still, Fuller’s concept of war as inherently savage, nonsensical, brutal, pointless, inevitable, and only circumstantially heroic rattles the bones. Fixed Bayonets! is an ensemble piece, but the fascinating character is military lifer Sgt. Rock (Gene Evans). Rock has leadership and father-figure qualities that endear him to the unit. However, we also get the impression that he is half a sociopath, probably unable or unwilling to exist outside the theater of war. It takes a while for Fixed Bayonets! to build steam, but the second half is a landmine field of devastating setpieces, punctuated with the threat of sudden, overwhelming and even self-inflicted violence.
The Steel Helmet (1951; Sam Fuller)
Gene Evans also stars in The Steel Helmet. He looks the same and plays a less friendly version of the Sgt. Rock character named Sgt. Zack. Evans was just 28 years old when he made these films, but he gives both characters the look and feel of a man who survived several lifetimes. His Sgt. Zack is already a dead man walking by the end of the opening credits, which roll over his bullet-pierced helmet.
Even though the credits for both Fixed Bayonets! and The Steel Helmet dedicate the films to factions of the U.S. Armed Forces, these movies are not about jingoism and cardboard heroes. There’s nothing explicitly political here except for the odd reference to “commie bastards,” and the films are mostly concerned with the incredibly difficult, dangerous and thankless life of the soldier.
All noble gestures are ultimately futile in The Steel Helmet, but so are ignoble gestures. A Japanese-American man fights for the country that imprisoned his parents, but flatly resists the North Korean hostage’s anti-American rhetoric. So often in The Steel Helmet, the most heroic act is the most pointless, and the most cowardly act is the most meaningful. Meanwhile, the survivors are the ones most willing and able to deny their humanity. It’s hard to imagine a film this savage existing anywhere other than the jungle.
The Big Red One (1980; Sam Fuller)
In many ways, The Big Red One feels like the culmination of something Sam Fuller started in Fixed Bayonets! and The Steel Helmet. This highly personal picture served as Fuller’s white whale for several decades. The Big Red One feels more sprawling and epic than the 1950’s war movies. But like its predecessors, the film stays focused on the psychological mechanics of a group of soldiers waiting for certain death.
So why do I feel that The Big Red One, while fascinating and filled with bravura sequences, is the least of the three films? Curiously enough, the location shooting (as opposed to the soundstages of Fixed Bayonets! and The Steel Helmet) robs the movie of a crucial sort of “realism.” The more claustrophobic sets of the earlier films supplied a raw, almost nightmarish intensity that The Big Red One lacks.
That said, The Big Red One is Sam Fuller on a grand scale. The nearly three-hour-long “Reconstructed” version gives him ample space to indulge his penchant for savage poetry, bizarre contradictions and cruel coincidences. The Big Red One offers one daring sequence after another, many trampling over the line between the sublime and the ridiculous.
David Thomson said it best: “From the Civil War to the Vietnam War, Fuller has dealt with every major phase of the American experience and returned with the conclusion that the world is a madhouse where ferocity alone survives.”
In The Steel Helmet, for example, Sgt. Zack technically “dies” before the film even begins, then loses his mind in the final battle, yet he still marches on to the next fight. Here, says Sam Fuller, is the United States Infantry.
Read more of Daniel’s reviews at Dare Daniel and Rotten Tomatoes, and listen to Daniel on the Dare Daniel podcast.