American Film of the 50s- Fixed Bayonets! by Aaron Pinkston
If you were to say that Samuel Fuller was the most underappreciated film auteur, I wouldn’t argue. Though his work has certainly gained more accolade over the past few years, with the attention brought on by the Criterion Collection and being named a great influence on Quentin Tarantino, he’s still a filmmaker that most people couldn’t name. And while it’s true that I had not previously heard of the film Fixed Bayonets!, knowing that it was a Samuel Fuller film, I was definitely excited. The work I know him most from, specifically The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor, are vibrant, exciting films — Fuller was a true master of pulp, seemingly as non-Hollywood as a filmmaker could be while working in the Hollywood system. Fixed Bayonets! was Fuller’s first film produced by a major studio, though in a genre he was very comfortable with, the war picture. Having seen the worst of war himself, he brought a certain viewpoint to the popular Hollywood genre that few directors of the time showed.
The 1950s probably wasn’t the best decade for American war films, though there are a few notable ones. By this time, the events of World War II had been fully realized, so there was a seriousness to the films, though because American involvement in World War II was mostly portrayed positively, many of the films had that vibe — certainly in comparison with the films in later decades that would primarily tackle Vietnam. There was another war in society’s consciousness, though, in the Korean War. Perhaps because it was a less minor conflict from the great war that preceded it, but there weren’t many American films that portrayed the Korean War in the 1950s, and there certainly aren’t many today. Strangely, the most popular cultural icon inspired by the Korean War was a television comedy series, which sort of speaks to the uncinematicness of this conflict. Fixed Bayonets! was one of the few, and still it feels like it could be about pretty much any war — though the Communist Chinese are very much the enemy in the film, it doesn’t consider the politics or events of the real history. In fact, I couldn’t really tell you one thing about the Korean War that I would have learned from the film. Like many great films of the genre, it’s much more concerned with the group of soldiers stuck together in this nasty situation, merely trying to survive against the elements and the opposition.
At the opening of the film, a group of superior officers decide to employ a strategy called “rear guard” — a tactic that uses a small group of soldiers at the end of the line, giving the illusion of a larger army. This allows for a majority of the troops to fall back, rest out of harm’s way. As I’m sure you can tell, this is a very dangerous risk for the men left behind. The film’s central character is Corporal Denno, played by Richard Basehart, a man not particularly thrilled about being in war. Though he is intelligent, has officer training, he isn’t quite cutting it in the battlefield. Fourth in command at the start, the film’s structure kills off, one by one, his superior officers, putting Denno in the position of taking more responsibility and facing the consequences of leader other men to their deaths.
With this plot, the film is certainly anti-war — though heroic deeds are put on display, Fuller never sentimentalizes the actions or the men, displaying them as dirty, scared and scarred. The film is in full opposition to the John Wayne war films of the time, which were much more openly heroic in nature. Fixed Bayonets! is a warts-and-all approach to battle, as it doesn’t outright demonize like the later Vietnam films, but shows how war completely destroys the individual, quite stark for a society still on a post-World War II high.
A major component to the anti-war feel of Fixed Bayonets! is the role of masculinity — a favorite idea of the 1950s. This film is particularly of note in the context of this series in that it is the first film to completely be comprised of male characters. Thusly, the men are not defined by how they relate to/control women, but by how they relate to each other. The divide between pro-war and anti-war films is often the portrayal of masculinity — whether the film gives us ultimate action heroes or cowards. In almost all anti-war films, major characters end up losing their life or their limbs, becoming less than a whole man. In Fixed Bayonets!, many soldiers die in fairly gruesome ways, the entire conceit of the film is to kill off the superior officers to force responsibility on to those that don’t want it. Quite pointedly, the most “masculine” of characters in Fixed Bayonets! are the very ones that don’t live.
Denno is described as a man who could be your typical war action hero, but there is something off about his masculinity. He seems like a natural leader, he’s smart and handsome, but the film asks if maybe he’s missing the guts necessary to be a true man. We see that he’s afraid to kill people (a strange twist that this is actually a negative quality in the constructs of war) and he’s even more afraid to lead other men to kill. He doesn’t seem to be against the war, just in his own abilities. As he says, “I can take an order, can’t give one.” He even posits that he’ll quit before being made to lead. In the context of the corporate-driven 1950s, is there a more masculine quality than to lead other men? Think of all the images we have of the man in the gray flannel suit, working for the corner office, being the master of his home and his work space.
As the film goes on, we learn that Denno isn’t exactly missing the guts, as in one particular scene he risks his own life to walk across a minefield to save another (though this is done with the joke that he would do anything to save one of his superiors from dying). Once the inevitable happens, and Denno is finally forced to face his fear, he does fulfill the decade’s vision of the masculine hero, though again, Fuller chooses to underplay the moments. I imagine many of the soldiers in Fixed Bayonets! would leave the war and struggle with re-establishing themselves, but maybe not Denno, who finds himself buying into the masculine ideal. Appropriately, there is a scene where we hear the thoughts of many of the platoon, thinking about what they are going to do after the war is through — many of them have very 1950s American Dream sort of aspirations of owning a business, becoming a family man. During this scene, we don’t get to hear what Denno is thinking, so we can’t quite speculate where he may end up in society, but I think the film ends with a nice bit of hope for the character, despite the grim tone throughout.
Fixed Bayonets! is altogether the simplest film of the series thus far, with the least amount of plot and excess, though it is vibrantly made by a great auteur. It’s pretty up-front in its themes and character developments, but a wonderful find and an interesting inclusion in the genre. If most people were to pick a war film from the decade to show, I imagine most would go for Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, though Fixed Bayonets! covers some of the same narrative ground. There is still something nice in seeing an essential filmmaker of the decade take on one of the cinema’s most popular genres, especially one that may be a bit under the radar.