Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Memorial Day Screening-Fullertime

Somehow felt that it was appropriate to watch a war movie of some sort on Memorial day, being a basic chicken-shit, never wear a uniform, maybe-go-to-Canada, kinda guy, with mucho respect for those who have indeed served in the military, and a special predilection for the war film genre. Settled on a particularly distinct one, Samuel Fuller’s 1951 Fixed Bayonets, a Korean War pic centering on an infantry platoon serving as an isolated rear unit for a larger battalion attempting to retreat in secrecy.

The erstwhile David Thompson has this to say of Fuller’s work (Pickup on South Street, Merril's Marauders, Shock Corridor, Underworld, USA, The Big Red One): “His films are like scenarios made from communities of rats, the camera itself a rat king.” In typical Fuller style (he both directed and adapted the screenplay from a war novel), the film’s opening sets up both mood and his own brand of cinematic exposition—after a typical one frame explanatory paragraph a long shot focuses on a lone jeep winding down a snowy road which is followed by a side angle medium shot of the jeep and its inhabitants, than--bam, it’s blown up less than thirty seconds in; Fullertime, wartime, crude, simple, violent, final.

The movie, which just about transports you to some Saturday matinee seat in a sticky theatre in your mind’s eye, is set in an obvious studio construct of snow, rocks, and mountains, with the typically ethnically and socially divergent platoon members, headed up by the burr-headed and lead-voiced Gene Evans as the veteran Sergeant, and Richard Basehart as a Corporal with psychological issues. (James Dean makes a brief appearance as one of the regular G.I.’s.) Despite the thorough lack of big budget special effects, the movie's preponderance of B-actors, and it’s wonderfully typical purple, pulpy dialogue, Fuller’s dynamic use of contained space, his evocative moving camera, and his ability to jog the narrative with purely physical moments, make Fixed Bayonets one highly effecting war film.

As always, Fuller's archetypal landscape-- individuals thrown together in a very particular microcosm under bleak conditions—allows the director to focus his lens on what is the heart of most of his films: the inherent contradictions of individualism, particularly what he sees as inherently American individualism. For Fuller, a true cinematic poet of violence, paranoia, and anti-heroism, that means, the constant pursuit of liberty under the pervasive shadow of death. The understated refrain of Fixed Bayonets keeps coming out of the mouth of a yet another weary, unshaven protagonist as soon as next temporarily individualized dogface meets death (and, as is his wont, Fuller doesn't hardly ever pull the trigger on any of his characters until after he's--however briefly--sketched 'em in), “Strip him of everything we can use, roll him in a blanket, bury him …mark him.” In Sam Fuller's world death doesn’t become you, but that don’t stop it from easing on down the road.

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