BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM reports from the Wellington Film Society. This week: Samuel Fuller goes to war.

DESPITE Samuel Fuller’s Fixed Bayonets ostensibly being based on John Brophy’s novel (which was previously filmed in 1943), you can feel the grip of Norman Mailer’s 1948 opus, The Naked and the Dead. Men whose fears are viciously exposed in battle, the atavistic ignorance demanded of good soldiers, and the dynamics of soldiers tested to the breaking point by particular circumstances. In fact, Fuller even includes inner monologues by the actors – a non-too subtle approach – but one that emphasises the flicker of humanity in a de-humanised and cruel environment. It’s a highly masculine world, but one where man and environment (in spite of its obvious studio setting) become scarcely distinguishable.

The film is based in Korea (with the war still being highly relevant to a 1951 audience) and looks at a group of forty-eight men who are forced to stay behind in a rear-guard action so a fifteen-thousand man division can escape in order to avoid a massacre. The film focuses predominantly on one character, Denno, a corporal whose inability to shoot an enemy dead, coupled with his proximity to the seniority of rank in the platoon, leaves him terrified of being in charge.

It’s a simple war tale that could easily have been a rather insipid parable of heroism and battling against the odds. However, Fuller is too smart and too pessimistic to simply allow this. The film is full of Fullerian touches – those little moments that disorient a viewer. Camera shots on the individual soldiers’ eyes as the division leave, or a walkie-talkie moment involving Rock (played by Gene Evans) swearing he can see something moving, while the man on the other end denies seeing anything, are examples of Fuller’s classic style of messing with style at crucial moments.

Of course some of Fuller’s flaws are also present here – melodramatic acting, and an occasional lack of continuity – but as it always seems to be, it works wonderfully well for him. There are moments of great suspense too – the minefield rescue had the audience on tenterhooks, and Fuller manages to ramp up the tension by almost entirely focusing on a subjective camera position. There’s also a rather pat ending and a dehumanised view of the ‘enemy’, though one would think it’d be impossible to make a studio film critical of the Korean War only a year into the conflict. Yet Fuller doesn’t create a particularly glorifying piece of work either – war is a callous beast that picks off whomever it chooses, and all the men can do is to crawl and clamber and hope for the best.