|Cast:||Richard Basehart, Gene Evans, Michael O'Shea, Richard Hylton, Craig Hill, Skip Homeier|
“Ain’t nobody goes out looking for responsibility. Sometimes you get it whether you’re looking for it or not” – Sgt. Rock
Samuel Fuller uses the steady progression of a reluctant intellectual warrior, Cpl. Denno (Richard Basehart), toward the obvious role of platoon leader to depict the random and horrific nature of war. Simple films of the dogface experience, their fear and battle fatigue, Fixed Bayonets! and the preceding The Steel Helmet are anomalies when it comes to war films, not only because they were made while the war was raging - Steel Helmet during the initial year and Fixed Bayonets! during the second - but because they avoid the comfortable scenes, typical moralization, and obvious conclusions of even the films that are made long after the war has ended. It’s hard to think of non-Fuller war films that are so completely devoid of ideology.
Unconcerned with the politics behind the Korean War, Fuller deals with the men rather than the message. The film’s depiction of war is timeless because it cuts through the b.s. to find the essence of the soldiers and their experience. They are simply a cross section of ordinary individuals suddenly engaged in the game of death who kill and sacrifice their lives because they are ordered to. Fuller examines these individuals as free of sentiment and cliche as possible. This isn’t a film of motivational patriotic speeches and rabid nostalgia, there’s no honor or heroism, just a job that needs to be done, if for no other reason than the other guy will kill you if you don’t kill him first.
Fuller is equally unconcerned with posturing, instead getting into the soldier’s heads and showing how they confront their fears. There’s very little machismo, but if there’s something that, on the surface, goes against the grain, it’s the unusually high amount of comedy. Fixed Bayonets! is actually a very funny film, not because it strives to entertain, although that doesn’t hurt, but rather because the soldiers have to lighten the atmosphere in order to avoid being scared to death. And I think it’s really the tone that’s so crucial to the films success because it’s at once serious and comical, a sort of gallows humor that, more rather than simply showing their camaraderie, brings out their vulnerability and humanity.
Most screenplays give warning and reason, but Fuller, the WWII veteran, understands living is mostly just luck, and always aims to surprise us. When a bullet ricochets around a cave until it finds a home, you might as well be playing Russian Roulette. The platoon will have to wade through freezing water, and one man may need his foot amputated from the frostbite while the rest recover in a matter of hours. They will walk the mine fields, and one man may get blown to bits while the others avoid the bombs. Sure, there is generally some technique and smarts involved, it’s not always completely random, but everyone has been taught the same precautions, and they aren’t necessarily dying because they made a mistake, unless you want to say that mistake was finding themselves in Korea to begin with.
No one exemplifies the difference between skill and execution better than Denno. Finishing at the top of his training class, he has all the potential to be a great soldier. However, he’s first and foremost a human being, and that interferes with his ability to be a leader, and most importantly, a cold killer. He fully understands his own limitations. He can hit a target as well as anyone until that target is an actual human being in his sights. Denno hasn’t been hardened like the veteran Sgt. Rock (Gene Evans) to the point he sees an enemy rather than a member of the human race; Rock knows it’s him or them, while Denno wishes there was an alternative.
Denno can take orders because it’s not on his conscience, but he can’t give an order that can get his own men killed, which means he basically can’t give an order, period. Denno’s primary fear isn’t his own death – he’s no more afraid of the inevitability of his passing than the next man – but he’s petrified of the death of the three higher ranking officers, to the point he wonders if he’ll have to shirk his inevitable duty as platoon leader because he doesn’t believe he’ll be able to be mature and uninhibited enough to accept what must be done. Denno is not simply selfish, he understands that being a confident and competent leader are crucial to the survival of the entire unit because those underneath him will function better if their leader is able to minimize their fears, and part of that involves not only being able giving the order, but more importantly, passing off the idea you believing in this judgment. He does not have the respect of those under him, who all share his belief they are more suited to leadership than he is because they at least can act and react in the heat of battle.
The inevitability of Denno’s command comes from the fact the 48-man rear guard platoon has been asked to stay behind and pretend to be the entire 15,000 man division. Though the rest of division is bolting because they believe a massacre is imminent, they are prone to ambush if the rear guard can’t buy them enough time to escape. The film is based upon the actual US withdrawal to the South of the Han River ordered by General Ridgway to avoid meeting a 300,000+ man communist offensive.
All the men in the rear guard know their personal cause is lost. A few may live, but essentially it’s a suicide mission sacrificing 40 lives to save perhaps 4000. Fuller really doesn’t care about anything but their emotions and their duty. This is absolutely shocking because every other film, even if made 50 years after the war was over, would be all about their nobility and sacrifice. Fuller is all about emotions, but his greatness lies in his rare ability to convey theirs without manipulating ours. Here he simply and effectively shows that while they know it’s their responsibility to be more than what they really are, they are not extraordinary, larger than life heroes. They are simply men who take orders because they have to, whether they like them or not. They will make every attempt to man up because it’s their duty, but ultimately they must still deal with the loss of their own individuality, a sacrifice which inherently and obviously doesn’t thrill them.
Cut off from the rest of the army, Fuller chooses locations that accentuate the rear guard’s isolation, such as a cave. In order to stay alive, the soldiers must not merely hide, but rather lose their identity, at times, or even at once, pretending to be multitudes of people or no one at all. It’s the aspiration of no man to be mistaken for snow, but the soldier must care more for their life than for their dignity, their humanity. And yet, even by doing so, the main thing they don’t know is when their identity will totally be taken. In the end, we come to understand that’s the real importance of the dog tag, even though at that point it really only matters to those who survive.
As in The Steel Helmet, Gene Evans steals the show as the gruff, tough, battle hardened, world weary leader. He seems the perfect stand-in for Fuller, cynical and in your face in spite of if not because he’s wise and caring. In this case, he’s third in command, although as the seasoned veteran, he’s the one giving everyone advice on the tactics best suited to survival, if not also the tactical leader.
Though everything is well done, as a whole, the film seems to lack the freshness and originality of the brilliant Steel Helmet, which also deals with, among other things, death causing the devolution of the chain of command. Even the combat scenes, which in theory would be better due to the success of Helmet allowing for a bigger budget, are not nearly as convincing as the smoke and mirrors work on The Steel Helmet. But even if it’s arguably merely a nice compliment to his preceding major work, when ranking war films in terms of urgency, anything done by Fuller should be right at the top of your list.