Celebrated film noir director Sam Fuller delivers a "rough, tough, hard-hitting and action-packed" (Variety) masterpiece, incorporating all the gritty, suspenseful, real-life elements to "build a war drama of enormous emotional proportion" (Los Angeles Examiner). Featuring Richard Basehart and one of the earliest film appearances of James Dean, the adventure puts you right in the line of fire.
A freezing snow blasts the mountain peaks of wartime Korea. A small platoon of army grunts are ordered to stay behind to protect a 15,000-man division as it moves out under heavy communist fire. One corporal, whom the platoon has mistakenly come to believe is a hero, is left with the responsibility of protecting the men. It's a mistake that is about to come back to haunt them.
"Ain't nobody goes out looking for responsibility. Sometimes you get it whether you're looking for it or not."
As I stated in my review for the riveting submarine thriller 'The Enemy Below,' a war film doesn't always have to be about a true to life or even be inspired by a real battle in order for it to resonate with the audience. Characters are the key. If the audience doesn't have someone to hold onto, someone they can look in the eye and see a version of themselves, the whole endeavor is lost. In war, we often want to project the better versions of ourselves. We want to say that if we were in a particular situation, we would act courageously and without fear. But that sort of scenario isn't an authentic representation of a terrifying and bloody act. If we were to be honest with ourselves, we wouldn't be able to state emphatically how we would act under fire. It's because of this of honesty that makes Samuel Fuller's 'Fixed Bayonets!' such a tense, edge of your seat suspenseful, and most importantly, human film.
December 1951, Korea. The war has been raging, the United States and its allies had pushed the North Koreans all the way to the brink of defeat. When the Chinese enter the war, the conflict becomes a whole other ball game. All of a sudden, American forces are being pushed into playing a defensive war; holding positions as long as they can and retreat as soon as possible or expect to incur heavy if not total losses of divisions. With the entire Chinese army barring down on them, with winter ravaging the country, American forces have one chance to bug out without losing several divisions in the process. When the wounded Major General (Stuart Randall) gives the order to get out of Dodge, he knows he has the means to save an entire division and with it thousands of lives, but he must leave the best company of 48 men to hold a narrow pass. If these brave men are able to put up the best front they can that they're a fully equipped and armed regiment and keep the Reds at bay, the retreat will go unnoticed and lives will be saved.
This heavy and likely life-ending sacrifice falls onto men like Sgt. Lonergan (Michael O'Shea), the second in command Sgt. Rock (Gene Evans), and third in command Cpl. Denno (Richard Basehart) along with men like the know-it-all Whitey (Skip Homeier) and dozens of other brave fighters. As the war has progressed and the fighting intensified, Cpl. Denno has gone the entire duration of his tour without having to pull the fateful trigger that ends another man's life. As others around him have been able to pull the trigger with ease, Denno hasn't found the guts within himself to kill someone. It's not a matter of nerve. He's been able to line a man in his sights, but all of a sudden he empathizes with that person, wondering what his life is like and who will miss him if he were to die. He just can't pull the trigger when he has a man dead to rights. He's a brilliant tactician. He knows how to outsmart the enemy and he isn't afraid to save a wounded man as gunfire echoes all around him, so he's no coward. When the situation worsens and commanding offers start to drop, Denno will have to face the responsibility of command, the leadership of a group of men depending on him for their lives, and even have to face pulling the trigger when it counts most.
Going into this screening of the Blu-ray of Samuel Fuller's 'Fixed Bayonets!' it was only a film I'd ever heard of, perhaps maybe saw the box at the rental shop but I never took the time to check out for myself. I knew it mostly as a film with a "blink and you'll miss him" appearance by James Dean and that's about it. So going in, I really had no idea what to expect. If you want a succinct contemporary example to base expectations on, take the final battle of 'Saving Private Ryan' and transport it to the middle of winter in 1951 Korea and then wrap an entire film around it. From the first moment, we see the U.S. forces scrambling to keep up the pace with the invading Chinese army. They're outgunned and undersupplied without enough men to hold them back. If there is going to be anything even resembling victory to this war, that means sacrificing the lives of 48 men to save thousands. What happens next is that sacrifice played out as the encroaching Chinese/North Korean forces bare down on a small group of men who just want to live through the night.
With titles the like of 'The Naked Kiss,' 'Shock Corridor,' and 'Big Red One,' 'Fixed Bayonets!' feels right at home within the library of writer and director Samuel Fuller. As just his fourth feature film within three years, the man feels like he's found his creative stride. All of his tell-tale signs of suspense, character development, and sharp yet simplistic storytelling ability are deftly portrayed on screen. Picture a film that takes place in the dead of winter, snow is covering the ground and all of your characters wear white camouflage uniforms. That sounds like a nightmare for any writer or filmmaker to embed characters with any sense of individuality but Fuller pulls it off. At the heart of the company in this suicide mission is Richard Basehart's Cpl. Denno. We know he's anything but a coward because he's been selected for this mission. We hear second hand of his bravery under fire, but we see firsthand that the man has a hard time killing a Chinese scout. We hear his internal monologue trying to psyche himself up to pull the trigger, hoping against hope that the particular man in question gives him an actual reason to shoot beyond "he's the enemy." In contrast, we have Gene Evens as Sgt. Rock who stands as the spirit of the men. He says all of the right things, everything the men need to hear in order for them to do their duty in the face of death-defying odds. After that we have Sgt. Lonergan played by Micheal O'Shea who stands as the sort of courage we'd all want to find within ourselves in any wartime situation. We're given three men as the cultural ideals of American heroism. Natural leader, warrior, and humanitarian. It's an amazing dynamic to see on screen and for each character to adopt in their own way.
Without giving away any sort of spoiler, eventually through the course of events, Denno will have to assume the mantle of responsibility. It's an idealized reaction to such responsibility to be sure, but it's one we all can hope to aspire to. Some of us naturally shrink from that role of leadership - especially when lives are on the line. It's what makes it easier to Monday morning quarterback the decisions of others because we actively take ourselves out of that role. But for Denno, we're given a brief glimpse of what it would be like to be forced to lead when it is the last thing we'd ever want to do in that sort of situation. We naturally don't want our decisions to cause the lives of others, but in war, it's an unavoidable outcome. Where 'Fixed Bayonets!' gets so much right is that it plays with these themes on an emotional and relatable level without feeling like it is pandering to its audience. It gives us a conflicting sense of ideal versus reality. We naturally want to put out the best version of ourselves but how we react in the moment is an unknown quantity.
'Fixed Bayonets!' builds its sense of tension, action, and suspense not always through intense battle sequences, but by putting a key empathetic character in a role of leadership. It's not just the battles or small skirmishes that get the blood pumping, it's knowing that at some point Denno is going to have to take charge. 'Fixed Bayonets!' isn't only a fantastic war film or an action film, it's a nail-biting human drama because it forces you to think about what you would do in such a situation. Going into this film, I expected something simple, easy, and frivolous. I didn't expect 'Fixed Bayonets!' to emerge as one of the best war films I've ever seen. It may not be in the ranks of 'Patton' or 'The Longest Day,' or even something more recent like 'Platoon,' but what 'Fixed Bayonets!' has going for it is a sense of honesty. This isn't trivial entertainment. It's most certainly action-packed and entertaining, but it has a humanizing purpose and is all the richer for it. This is a true gem of a film to discover and one I personally can't wait to look at again.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Fixed Bayonets!' arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of Kino Lorber through their Studio Classics label. Pressed onto a Region A BD25 disc, the disc is housed in a standard Blu-ray case. The disc opens directly to a static image main menu featuring traditional navigation options.
The artwork for this Blu-ray states that the film recently underwent a new 4k restoration. One look at this 1.33:1 transfer made me a believer that this film was given the premier treatment. It looks like the film was shot yesterday. Fine film grain is intact allowing for some incredible detail levels to emerge without any apparent usage of DNR or other noise reduction. Faces are particularly important because as I stated in the review, every character wears white. Because we don't lose any shadow and the film's grey scale is beautifully rendered, these men are never lost in all the white snow. Even the fake snow used allows for individual little details to pop up! Black levels are rich and inky without any crush and contrast in under control without any white blooming or blown out moments. The print is also in immaculate condition without any damage to report. There are a couple of shots that can look a tad soft, but those appear baked in and they're so brief that if you blink you'll miss them.
The English DTS HD-MA 2.0 audio track is just as rich and beautiful as the image. When the film needs to be quiet and build suspense or let the men have an earnest conversation or when gunfire needs to erupt or explosions pin down the troops - the track does an amazing job handling the tone shifts. Dialogue is cleanly and clearly rendered without any audibility issues. Some of the internal monologue moments can sound a bit soft, perhaps too whispery, but you shouldn't need to adjust your levels to compensate. To that, levels are well suited for this presentation as the film can quickly shift from calm and quiet to loud booming explosions on a dime. The track handles everything well without any distortion or other annoying anomalies so once you have it set at a comfortable level, you should be ready to rumble. The film sounds ageless as it is free of any hiss, pop, or dropouts. All around this is a fantastic audio track.
Audio Commentary: Historian Michael Schlesinger is joined by Fuller's wife and daughter and together they provide an interesting and informative commentary track. It's more focused on the life and career of Fuller than any specific scene, but they do cover a lot of the production history of the film and his frequent casting of Gene Evans.
Theatrical Trailer: (HD 2:36)
'Ambush Bay' Trailer: (HD 2:36)
'The Secret Invasion' Trailer: (HD 3:11)
'The Enemy Below' Trailer: (HD 2:19)
'Fixed Bayonets!' turned out to be a suspenseful and exciting war film that doesn't play lightly with the responsibility of leadership. His balance of character development with plot and suspense makes the film a nail-biting thriller while also serving as a tightly knit human drama. Kino Lorber brings the film to Blu-ray in grand order with a first-rate transfer and an exceptional audio track. Extras feature an informative commentary track and a collection of trailers. I'd never seen this film prior to this review and I didn't expect to be sucked into it the way that I was. Fans are absolutely going to want to add this to their lists, newcomers should consider it recommended.