Flashforwards to ‘Nam

Angkor Watt rear projection, always a good thing.

Been watching lots of Sam Fuller films and reading lots of interviews plus his autobio so now I have his voice in my head.

CHINA GATE is the one that ought, by rights, to be on the forthcoming Masters of Cinema FULLER AT FOX box set but isn’t — but we get 40 GUNS instead, an indie production shot on the Fox lot and released through that company, and that’s a better picture. Still, CHINA GATE is interesting — there aren’t many Viet Nam war movies made before the Viet Nam War officially started.

A crack squad of French Foreign Legionaires are sent on a mission to blow up a Viet Minh ammo dump, which didn’t interest me. Fuller making his hero a fairly despicable racist was sort of interesting, and making his villain more appealing in nearly every way was also a bold choice. Angie Dickinson already shows strong signs of being a Hawksian woman par excellence. But in a movie that seeks to condemn racism, it’s a bit of a handicap to have “half-Chinese” characters played by Dickinson and Lee Van Cleef. The film means well, is on the right side of the race question, but the means of production aren’t.

Speaking of which, Fuller seems to have been even more constrained by his schedule than usual. Ace editors Doane Harrison and Gene Fowler Jr. resort to blowing shots up optically to add a spurious sense of more coverage, which combines with the frequent stock shots to give the film a patched-together feel, with the grain changing from shot to shot.

My favourite bit of Fullerian madness comes when a Hungarian legionnaire wakes up in the jungle and sees a Red Army soldier standing before him, staring blankly ahead. What’s he doing here? Our man jumps up and slugs the guy, at which point he turns into Nat King Cole and hits him back.

OK, so I should explain that Nat King Cole plays one of the French Foreign Legion guys, see? Our Hungarian was having a sort of night terror / waking dream. The transformation is done with SFX: the Red Army hallucination drops out of frame when he’s socked, and when he straightens up again it’s Nat. See also the superb transformation in Bava’s SHOCK aka BEYOND THE DOOR II.

I also liked the reference to Nat having been in the Big Red One, and then an image — a decapitated Buddha — that directly anticipates the shattered crucifix Fuller uses at the opening of his masterpieciest film, THE BIG RED ONE.

Fuller is one filmmaker who can LITERALLY be called an iconoclast.

CHINA GATE stars Professor Clayton Forrester; Feathers; Sunrise Kid; Alvin Karpis; Sabata; Cheezy / Count de Roquefort; Marquis Robert de la Cheyniest; and Hannibal Chew.

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9 Responses to “Flashforwards to ‘Nam”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    LOVE this one, especially for Angie Dickinson’s self-description “I’m a little bit of everything and a whole lot of nothing.” Back in the late 80’s I taught a summer film course in La Jolla in “The War Film” Sam dropped by to speak not at a screening of his own film but at one of Huston’s “The Battle of San Pietro” because he was in the unit that mopped up after Huston’s unit had gone though. Sam, needless to say, was enchanting and the whole class fell madly in love with him.

    Le Van Cleef is in essence playing Ho Chi Minh here. Perfect when double featured with Mankiewicz’s “The Quiet American”

  2. Tony Williams Says:

    Despite his egocentricity, he is also the most honorable person in the film since he shares none of Brock’s racism and would unhesitatingly adopt Lucky Legs’s son. I get so irked when people criticize Cleef’s performance, one that is convincing and well-rounded.

  3. ehrenstein47 Says:

    Spielberg copped the name “Short Round” for the kid in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” Sam makes a nice cameo appearance in Spielberg’s Maudit Masterpiece “1941”

  4. Van Cleef is really good in this — I’m very glad he makes no attempt to “act Chinese.” And Fuller is consistently interesting on race — whereas a Stanley Kramer would have had a racist villain, Fuller makes him the hero and has all his soldier-of-fortune buddies berate him for the whole movie. To the point where it gets kind of tiresome, because it’s so obvious he doesn’t have a defensible point of view. But still, some in the audience probably learned from it.

    And Nat King Cole gets a beautiful last shot.

  5. Matthew Clark Says:

    Hong Kong action star Sammo Hung did a great remake of this in his Eastern Condors (1987). He replaces the legionnaires with a “dirty dozen” collection of Asian convicts, and a patrol of female Vietcong.

  6. Cool! I bet Sam didn’t make a nickel from it, though.

  7. Tony Williams Says:

    EASTERN CONDORS is a great movie. I used to run the opening scenes in my VIETNAM IN LITERATURE AND FILM class especially the scene where the one eye-bowed monk from MR VAMPIRE performs that action that remedies another example of U.S. incompetence!

  8. Matthew Clark Says:

    I liked when Sammo is ambushing and silently killing enemy soldiers with large palm leaves. And now that I think about it, the female guerrillas were not Vietnamese, but Cambodians. Lots of action, and a great ending dialog.

  9. Tony Williams Says:

    Yes, led by Joyce Godenzi whom Sammo later married.

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