Friday, August 31, 2012

Fixed Bayonets!

A war film reduced to its brute essence, Fixed Bayonets! possesses an almost transcendental rigour and self-discipline. It could just as easily be the work of a punch-drunk Dreyer as cinema’s resident tabloid poet, Samuel Fuller. Set on a snowy mountaintop during the Korean war, the film takes place on a bleached white canvas of snow, a thin painted backdrop adding to the overwhelming sense of artifice. It’s the perfect playground for a budget epic, and Fuller makes the most of it, alternating between lithe long takes and staccato montages in order to evoke the simultaneous terror and tedium of war. Save for the opening and closing blasts of music, the only sounds we hear are the sick crunch-crunch of feet on snow and the stereophonic call of the Korean trumpets. The periodic bursts of shell explosions and gunfire come as a relief from the hideous silence that pervades this unnatural place. Life is such a distant concern here that we might as well be watching two platoons of ghosts fighting over ownership of a cloud.

The stark setting of Fixed Bayonets! drains away all the other trappings of a typical Fuller war film—social commentary, anti-war agitation, autobiographical tangents—leaving only a series of irreducible moral challenges, like bodies uncovered in an empty swamp. The drama plays out in the soul of one Corporal Denno, a man who freezes up and cannot fire when confronted by enemy soldiers. As the leadership of the squad gets picked off one by one, Denno comes closer and closer to command and the inevitable confrontation with his own inability to take ownership of this bloodshed. Fascinatingly, Fuller underlines the man’s bravery where other filmmakers would cop-out and brand him a coward. The corporal may not want to take a life, but he’ll put his own on the line to save a wounded officer from the midst of a minefield. Compare that hair-raising sequence to the penultimate killing scene, when Denno, safely hidden in the bush, shoots an enemy at point-blank range. The Korean man’s body drops into the snow, like a puppet with its strings cut, and the rest of the squad rushes out to applaud Denno’s courage. Confusion flickers across his face. So this is bravery?

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