When people gaze back on 1950’s Americana, I think they generally picture a simpler time. If we were to judge by the popular media of the day, we might think that family problems played themselves out as they did in Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best. But, of course, we know that times were never really that simple and that the 50’s faced its’ share of problems just as any other decade. While it may have been a time of prosperity, the decade contained the troubles of racism, the fear of Communism, and even war. So often we see films from Hollywood which misrepresent the people and issues of their particular time period. That’s why witnessing the occasional film that feels authentic is so refreshing. One such film of this nature is Samuel Fuller’s Fixed Bayonets! (1951), a low budget picture about soldiers fighting and surviving in the Korean War.
The plot unfurls in a simple and straightforward manner, cutting right to the chase. A U.S. division faces certain defeat if they fail to retreat. But actually doing so is not so easy. If the enemy realize that the division is on the run then they are likely to attack in force, causing serious damage and casualties. A U.S. commander decides they must leave just one company of 48 men as a rear guard. Their mission is to convince the opposing forces that the entire division is still present while in reality the majority withdraws to safety. One of those charged to remain, reluctant corporal Denno (Richard Basehart), has a fear of command, but as those who outrank him begin falling victim to enemy fire, the possibility that he may have to take charge of the company grows ever stronger.
This film treats its subject matter with respect, but does not white-wash the American soldiers as many films of this era did. There are no fearless soldiers who place themselves in harms way without a moments thought; no John Wayne heroics. These soldiers fear for their lives and long for the war to end so they can travel home. In one memorable scene the camera pans across the worn-out faces of the soldiers and we hear their inner thoughts as they contemplate life after the war. That moment of reflection allows for some added depth to characters that, in a lesser film, could come across as one-dimensional. In addition, the enemy soldiers are portrayed much more fairly than most films of that era. Merely looking back on media and films a few years previous to the depiction of the Japanese during World War II creates a startling contrast in treatment. The caricatures of that time are at best laughable and at worst embarrassing to witness. But here, as opposed to resorting to caricature, Fuller portrays the Koreans as proficient soldiers merely attempting to attain their goal. This racial treatment is no surprise to those familiar with Fuller’s films as he included many anti-racist themes throughout his work.
Another element that Fuller brought to the table in this film was his own war experience, which, no doubt, lent a great authenticity to the story. Fixed Bayonets! feels gritty in a way that many war films fail to capture. For example, the soldiers don’t always maneuver in such a smooth manner. The combat is often chaotic with soldiers scrambling to hiding spots to avoid enemy fire. Personalities clash as the action intensifies. Furthermore, the company makes due with what they have around them, even setting up their shelter inside of a cave. Even though I have never experienced wartime combat myself, I feel comfortable in calling this film authentic in its depiction because I felt an emotional truth to them that resonated with me. Plus, I’m sure that Fuller was including material based on his own memories which adds even more insight into the psychology of the soldiers. But Fuller does not merely draw on his wartime experience for the sake of authenticity; he also has something to say through this film.
The main theme of Fixed Bayonets! deals with responsibility and how people handle it. Corporal Denno, the film’s protagonist, does not wish to take on the responsibility of leading his company out of a fear of being unfit for the job. The film makes the point that sometimes we find ourselves in situations where we must take charge, even if we didn’t ask to be put in that position. This type of message maintains the same level of relevance today as it did in the 1950’s – perhaps even more so. As Denno fights through his fears, so must we. Fixed Bayonets! ultimately becomes a tale of inspiration, and one worthy of seeking out.
This film comes highly recommended for those who enjoy war films or 1950’s cinema in general. Filmed as the Korean War waged onward, Fuller’s film tells the story of everyday people who make tough, life-altering choices. It’s filled with plenty of action and thrilling sequences, but also many quieter moments of character study. By combining the conventions of a typical genre film with a decidedly personal vision, Fixed Bayonets! works as an authentic, American story.