United States, 1951
Directed by Samuel Fuller
With Richard Basehart (Corporal Denno), Gene Evans (Sergeant Rock), Michael O’Shea (Sergeant Lonergan), Craig Hill (Lieutenant Gibbs), Richard Hylton (Medic Wheeler)
A platoon of 40-odd US soldiers is dispatched to a dangerous pass to make believe a whole division is going to move this way, while in fact it would go another way to dodge a frontal attack by the enemy. This decoy operation on a grand scale, plainly sacrificial in its nature, takes place in the Korean peninsula in the heat of the war pitting UN forces against North Korean and Chinese communists. Such a plot creates an obvious suspense for the audience: whether a small group can hold as long as it is necessary; and it should effortlessly display not only basic feelings but also perfect heroism.
But another kind of suspense is added, linked to a real lack of heroism and twisting a little the story the audience could expect from this B-movie. It centers on Corporal Denno, a rather reserved fellow among a more rambunctious group, who failed to become a high-ranking officer. He proved unable to lead at the military academy, and fears leadership and even killing (when an Asian infantryman appears he is just unable to pull the trigger, letting another private doing the job). When the operation starts taking its toll on the troops, he is tormented by the possibility that all the officers above him (a lieutenant and two sergeants) would get killed one after another, leaving to him the task of running the troops. So is he doomed to do it?
Personal angst takes the lead in this plot, along with vivid details of combat hardship and cruel irony. This is a gritty sense of realism that owes nothing to a shoestring budget but a lot to a keen depiction of the blows war deals to the men in its chaos. Nobody can be spared in this nerve-fraying, body-wrecking ordeal, not even a hard-nosed fighter; and the pain and fatigue can come from the most mundane element. The best instance comes in the long scene when, in the wet and dark cave they use as a shelter, soldiers spend the evening away bickering and then trying to warm up their feet, huddling together following the advice of Sergeant Rock, who claims the guy next to him needs to see the medic, only to realize he is the one with a numb foot. The camera fittingly tends to capture the guys in close shots, from medium shots to close-ups, sticking to their experiences in life and death, from lulls spent grumbling or speculating on the war’s travails to the attacks on the sly of the communist forces, and often neglecting more dramatic pictures, except at the end, when the mission is on the verge of success – for the survivors, as well as for their reluctant chief.
The happy ending of “Fixed Bayonets!” is however nuanced by the arrival of these soldiers at a friendly base by night, crossing a river, the camera trained on the wearied and wary faces of victors coming from darkness and sadness. War is a painful adventure that may foster heroism but things are never easy and pleasant on the ground and do include fear, lapses of judgment, bad luck; and Samuel Fuller’s vision is matter-of-factually to a fault, not without sympathy for the job but without illusion, just conveying the exhausting and excruciating experience of a few men.