Winter Warfare: Sam Fuller’s Fixed Bayonets! (1951) – Blu-ray review
While Hollywood was busy glamorising combat, Fuller’s cinematic rear-guard action is a vivid attempt to cleave close to the awful events he’d witnessed first-hand.
(Samuel Fuller, 1951)
One of the lasting legacies of World War II on Hollywood was that a generation of directors were active servicemen who had seen combat. In most cases, this didn’t necessarily translate to the films they made, but Sam Fuller – like Oliver Stone, a generation and another war later – had such an urgent style that he couldn’t help but recreate on-screen the conditions he’d found in real-life.
Although Fixed Bayonets! revolves around the Korean War (like its immediate predecessor in Fuller’s career, The Steel Helmet), memories were still fresh in Fuller’s mind and this feels like a film ripped straight from the gut. The no-frills narrative could, with only minor changes, be applied to WWII, as the strategic framework of a rear-guard action – and the psychological damage this unleashes on the platoon left behind – are surely universal to any warzone. Beyond the identity of “the enemy,” the biggest distinguishing feature is to locate events on a snowy mountain, although that’s chiefly to assist the monochrome cinematography, finding visual tension in its white-on-white palette.
The slightly hokey story, in which Richard Baseheart’s cowardly corporal, Denno, fears he’ll be put in charge, achieves an interesting dynamic. While it’s obvious that he will survive, it brings real suspense to proceedings because it means many others will need to die before he fulfils the inevitable destination of his character arc and takes charge. Even so, Fuller’s sharp editing finds anxiety even in Denno’s story, notably a great set-piece in which he has to cross a minefield.
Despite a story whose resolution depends on the American soldier finding his trigger finger, this is one of the least glamorous of war movies, sustained by its bleak running jokes about the need to find dry socks and the ritual of stripping dead comrades of anything useful. Ricochets and frostbites are just as deadly here as a full-frontal attack, but arguably a welcome respite from the gnawing anxiety of waiting. Even the bustling energy of Fuller’s camerawork, with its roving tracking shots, lack any triumphalism; more often than not here, the movements signify the dull routine of the job – or the desperate attempt to find cover whenever there is a battle.