With the odd exception, nowadays we tend to make war movies about conflicts that are actually over. Otherwise it tends to colour the movie a bit. Compare the slew of ‘80s Vietnam movies to John Wayne’s The Green Berets (1968) to see what we mean. But that hasn’t always been the case, as all those WWII movies from the ‘40s attest. You might think the change is just a post-war thing but don’t forget Korea. There’s a very good reason why it’s sometimes called “The Forgotten War”, although we suspect anyone who was there remembers it all too clearly. Which brings us to Fixed Bayonets!, an American movie about the Korean War, made when the conflict was only a year old.
It’s the first winter of the war and the division is going to have to withdraw. Like any military withdrawal, some poor sods are going to have to stay behind to do the unpleasant and dangerous business of conducting the rear-guard action. As there’s a handy chokepoint at a pass in the mountains, the general reckons he can leave even less men in harm’s way so it’s left to just a single platoon. Great if they can convince the enemy there’s actually more of them than there really is and also good for a movie, as we can actually get to know most of the soldiers (the same reason why Tom Hanks only had half a squad to find Matt Damon). And that’s pretty much the story. We’ve got some interesting characters and some pretty good sub-plots like Cpl. Denno (Richard Basehart - yep, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) who is a soldier with plenty of guts but just can’t pull the trigger when he’s pointing his gun at someone. Awkward if you’re a soldier in an actual war. He’s also painfully aware that he’s fourth in command so it might only take three bullets to put him in charge and no matter how fearless he is of his own safety, he sure as hell doesn’t want to be responsible for everyone else’s. How do you think that one’s going to pan out?
In a sense, the fact that the Korean War was still on at the time has no bearing on the movie. There’s no politics or propaganda; this is just a soldier’s story and owes a lot to Lewis Milestone’s A Walk in the Sun (1945). The whole thing is clearly filmed in a studio and, in fact, much of it is set in a cave, but there is real drama here with a likable cast doing a splendid job of portraying the Poor Bloody Infantry in a tricky situation. From their looks of resignation as the rest of the division moves out to Richard Basehart’s attempted rescue of a sergeant from a minefield, there are loads of great moments in this movie. If you’re a war movie fan this is a must-see but even if you aren’t, we’d recommend this any day.
Our only concern is that surely it should have been called Fix Bayonets!? That has been bothering us for years. Oh, and see if you can spot (a then unheard of) James Dean in the ranks.
Special Features: Commentary, trailers, gallery, booklet.
FIXED BAYONETS! (1951) / DIRECTOR: SAM FULLER / SCREENPLAY: SAM FULLER / STARRING: RICHARD BASEHART, GENE EVANS, GENE EVANS, MICHAEL O’SHEA, RICHARD HILTON, CRAIG HILL, SKIP HOMEIER, JAMES DEAN / RELEASED: 15TH FEBRUARY