Tuesday, August 17, 2010
Samuel Fuller’s 1951 war films make an excellent diptych: where The Steel Helmet rides on its soldiers’ physical survival in a warm manmade temple, Fixed Bayonets! is all about the wintry psychological landscape. You can tell because the mission itself is not an assault or a defense but a bluff where a platoon has to seem like a whole division in order to buy time. Soon enough we’re floating in and out of our heroes’ heads like Wenders’ angels, returning with morbid curiosity to the particularly dramatic show going on inside Corporal Denno (Richard Baseheart), who’s increasingly overt about his command-related anxieties. But Fuller’s cannier than you think, and the crux of the film lies in what happens when Denno is finally saddled with the responsibility he’s been dreading.
It’s a neat trick that reveals Fuller’s general reticence to condemn any of his characters, no matter how weak they may appear. Just look at the opening dialogue. Fuller sets the stage with the idea that leadership is challenging, especially when lives hang in the balance. And lives are certainly lost in Fixed Bayonets!, with typically thrilling action sequences that, again, are mostly psychological: the midnight bugling, the frostbite sequence, and especially the minefield rescue. We can barely breathe as Denno traverses the short distance from the medic to Lonergan, because Fuller pumps up the crunch of the snowy footsteps and alternates among a number of expressive angles, from a tight closeup on a sweaty Denno to a shot of Lonergan through Denno’s legs just a few feet away.
Fixed Bayonets! is a harrowing watch that nimbly negotiates the minefields of simple psychoanalysis and mental clarity as a panacea, building to an ending of complicated emotions. The biggest obstacles are certainly internal, but there’s a war going on outside your head, too.