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China Gate

by Glenn Erickson Apr 16, 2022

The messy politics of the Indo-China War didn’t confuse writer-director Samuel Fuller; as the machine gun- toting Nat King Cole snarls, hating Commies is an end unto itself!  Fuller’s second outrageous Cold War combat fantasy pits a handful of French Legionnaires and mercenaries against the might of the International Communist Conspiracy, to stop the flow of Chinese and Russian weapons into Vietnam. Commander Gene Barry has an ally who could be straight from a Terry and the Pirates comic strip: Eurasian adventuress Lucky Legs. Young Angie Dickinson is the good-time-girl / wronged spouse / caring mother who also maintains cordial pillow-talk relations with the Red vermin. If those are the Good and the Bad, Lee Van Cleef’s Chinese General is the Ugly: his troops guard the China Gate, the key to Commie victory!


China Gate
Blu-ray
Viavision [Imprint] 111
1957 / B&W / 2:35 widescreen / 95 min. / Street Date April 8, 2022 / Available from Amazon.au / 39.95
Starring: Gene Barry, Angie Dickinson, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Paul Dubov, Lee Van Cleef, George Givot, Gerald Milton, Neyle Morrow, Marcel Dalio, Maurice Marsac, Warren Hsieh, Paul Busch, James Hong, Ziva Rodann.
Cinematography: Joseph F. Biroc
Art Director: John Mansbridge
Film Editors: Gene Fowler Jr., Dean Harrison
Original Music: Victor Young extended by his old friend Max Steiner. Song China Gate by Victor Young and Harold Adamson.
Written, Produced and Directed by
Samuel Fuller

Crime reporter turned screenwriter Samuel Fuller got his foot in the Hollywood door as early as 1933. When the war came he took a slight career detour: instead of looking for a deferment he enlisted and fought his way across Europe as an ordinary Army infantryman — at age 31, when most of his fellow soldiers were just out of their teens. The war didn’t diminish Fuller’s tenacity to become a filmmaker. He was soon producing and directing, and hit it big with The Steel Helmet (1951), a war film set in Korea.

The Army wasn’t happy with that show’s depiction of raw combat brutality, but 20th Fox’s Darryl Zanuck liked Fuller’s brash and irreverent style. Zanuck turned Fuller’s talents loose on Cold War action thrillers that treated the Communist expansion as just another crime story deserving of sensational tabloid headlines. The F.B.I. took exception to Fuller’s cavalier attitude toward citizen loyalty in Pickup On South Street, but the director continued to wave the flag in his own unique, eccentric way. His Hell and High Water is an outrageous political comic book adventure in which pacifist scientists charter a pirate submarine to investigate a bizarre atomic False Flag conspiracy by Red China.

The Fuller-Zanuck relationship was so cozy that Fuller had even starred the production chief’s mistress in his submarine movie. But then Zanuck bowed out of Fox, leaving Fuller with a distribution deal for two of his independent Globe Enterprises productions. The first was another combat comic book that eagerly turns the Cold War into a shootin’ war. China Gate was Fuller’s first small-scale film in five years; it must use clever production tricks to achieve an epic look. Deprived of access to Fox’s contract stars, Sam created one of his own by promoting actress Angie Dickinson to leading player status. As China Gate’s central character Dickinson is yet another of Fuller’s wild women, barely tethered by the Production Code.

 

 

“Terry and the Pirates vs. Those Pesky Commies”

Basically a ‘lost patrol’- yarn about a secret mission deep into enemy territory, at several junctures China Gate resembles Apocalypse Now. John Milius may have been influenced by Fuller’s film, as his original Apocalypse script went even farther in the direction of comic book- inspired fantasy.

But this show claims to ‘tell it like it is.’ An opening expository monologue is a real jaw dropper. Without catching his breath, the narrator informs us that the French colonial occupation of Indo-China (read: Vietnam) is a good thing, and that the Viet Minh Communists are criminals fighting for Russia. Ho Chi Minh is dismissed as a thug and the last-ditch French campaign is honored as the region’s one hope for Freedom against creeping Totalitarianism.

Fuller’s premise champions the colonial occupation. A beseiged French hamlet is bravely holding out against the Viet Minh bombing raids (?). It is defended by weary Legionnaires and sustained by relief air drops. The Legionnaires are augmented by independent mercenaries, stateless freebooters that have relocated from the previous anti-Red battlefront in Korea.

 

We’re told that the Viet Minh are persisting only because of a sneaky supply line feeding them Commie arms ‘directly from Moscow.’  A massive stockpile of guns, ammo and bombs is hidden at a secret location at a place called The China Gate. The French commander enlists former American soldier, now mercenary Sgt. Brock (Gene Barry) to lead the party. But to get safely past enemy checkpoints they need ‘Lucky Legs’ (Angie Dickinson), a tough-cookie Eurasian ‘exotic’ who until a recent bombing ran a bar. Lucky Legs knows all the Viet Minh officers, in particular the zealous Major Cham (Lee Van Cleef), Red commander of the depot at China Gate.

Lucky Legs occupies the center of Fuller’s preposterous sex fantasy / melodramatic tangle. She has a son by (who else) Sgt. Brock, the ex-husband who abandoned her the moment he saw his child’s Chinese features. Brock is not bothered that Lucky Legs (this is really buried in context) is a prostitute and party girl — but gets freaked out by the thought of having a bi-racial child. Lucky Legs has very close ties to Major Cham, yet nobody worries about her loyalty. Lucky Legs’ son (Warren Hsieh) doesn’t have a name; she talks about her dedication to him but there are no motherly scenes. A priest (Marcel Dalio) will apparently look after ‘the son’ when Lucky is off guiding the patrol.

 

Lucky Legs is both an objectified sexpot and Fuller’s notion of a complex characterization. She’s first introduced as an impressive pair of gams that stretch across the Cinemascope screen in a side-slit dress. She then runs through the bomb rubble in her high heels to recover a precious U.S. Aid parachute package. Politically speaking, Lucky Legs functions very much like the pickpocket Skip McCoy in Fuller’s Pickup on South Street, who also claims to be unmoved by politics or loyalty to any flag. She agrees to guide the mission only after a French officer promises to make sure her son can live in the United States (?). Like Skip she claims only self-interest, but when the chips are down we know she’ll come through for America.

Lucky Legs gets the commando mission past the Viet Minh’s river checkpoints and tree-house observation decks. In each she finds a solitary soldier who would like to sleep with her but who will settle for a bottle of cognac. None have any interest in politics. All Commie soldiers are unmotivated slack-brained boozers, didn’t you know?

The mission’s heroic Legionnaires and mercenaries are remarkably liberal in their outlook. They never speak of Asians in disrespectful terms, despite the fact that generations of colonial French had developed an entire lexicon of slurs to describe non-whites.

The commandos get into a few fights and start losing team members. A Greek (Gerald Milton) breaks his back falling down a hill (great stunt) but lives long enough to deliver a sentimental, patriotic Fuller speech. These soldiers talk incessantly, explaining how they came to be rough-tough killers but also criticizing Sgt. Brock for throwing away a swell dame like Lucky Legs over an issue as foolish as race prejudice. Having a real family and living in America is their ultimate dream. For Brock and Lucky Legs the mission is jungle combat, lessons in racial tolerance and marriage counseling bundled together as a vacation package.

 

Fuller recycles another characterization from his Pickup on South Street,  Thelma Ritter’s Mo Williams, an old woman who sells ties on the streets of the Bowery. Mo declares that she hates Commies, even though she cannot articulate why. In China Gate Mo Williams’ anti-Red intuition is ascribed to the mercenary Goldie, who is played by none other than the legendary pop singer Nat ‘King’ Cole. Although he’s a tender soul when not fighting, and also croons the film’s romantic title tune, Goldie’s professed aim in life is to keep killing until all Commies are extinct.

Decked out in an Aussie bush hat and caressing his grease gun, Goldie is Brock’s toughest fighter. He impales his foot on a Viet booby trap yet continues to march and fight for at least two days. That Goldie can keep going with a traumatic foot injury is a strange anomaly in a Sam Fuller film. His previous combat pictures stressed foot care as the key to an infantryman’s survival: The Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets!

 

 

The Communist Romantic Pitch . . . from Lee Van Cleef!

When Lucky Legs finally contacts Major Cham at the China Gate the film almost becomes an unintentional comedy. Lee Van Cleef’s Commie leader is of course a sneering Red hyena. If the French win he’ll go back to being a teacher (inference: never trust educators). If Ho Hi Minh wins the war Cham sees two possibilities for his future — he’ll either be executed or promoted to general and sent to school in Moscow!  Like every other male in the movie Cham wants Lucky Legs in his bed. He offers to fetch her child so she can live with him in a Soviet paradise. Lucky Legs instead waits for her chance to blow the whole China Gate depot sky high.

Angie Dickinson makes this impossible character work by sheer force of personality. Lucky Legs’ seductive swagger bluffs the enemy guards again and again, even though some of her run-ins at checkpoints verge on action-movie parody. Perhaps she’s the same kind of vaguely non-sexual ‘Good Time Girl’ that proliferated in frontier saloons under the Production Code.

Lucky Legs’ romantic rivals are nowhere near as convincing. Gene Barry is an okay action hero, but we don’t warm up to his repeated scenes of anguished introspection. Only committed Lee Van Cleef fans will admire his unspecific, ‘intellectual’ Asian creep. The gravel-voiced Major Cham rattles off at least eight pages of exposition, proudly proclaiming himself an opportunistic hypocrite. Are we to believe that Lucky Legs ever took him seriously?

The film’s bittersweet final images reinforce a racist theme also expressed in Douglas Sirk’s Battle Hymn, released the same year. It’s the Reader’s Digest– ‘paternal America’ notion that wars in far-off places like Korea are really about simple good deeds, like saving orphans. Goldie smiles in approval as Brock walks off holding the  hand of the little son he previously refused to acknowledge. Yep, when the French toss in the towel baguette, America will be there take up the slack. No orphans will be left behind. John Wayne cribbed this mawkish, unconvincing sentiment for the finish of his The Green Berets:

“C’mon, son! You’re what this whole thing is all about!”

 


 

Stock Shot Bonanza and the Pod People Cave

Our love for Sam Fuller’s crazy tales is equalled by our interest in how he filmed them. China Gate employs every cost-cutting trick known to mid-‘fifties film producers. The excellent jungle night exteriors — beautifully shot by Joe Biroc — must have been filmed on Fox’s sound stages. They’re offset by day exteriors filmed on Southern California locations that might as well all be Griffith Park. Vietnam is apparently a land of dry, dusty vegetation. But Fuller makes full use of a camera crane in early scenes to give the picture a ‘big’ look. His camera swoops through a redressed ‘ruined Europe’ city rubble set, hastily painted with Asian signage.

Ex-optical expert Linwood Dunn’s name is on the credits, along with the creative editor Gene Fowler Jr.. That explains the film’s deft use of stock footage taken from French newsreels and various Hollywood war movies. Dunn and Fowler Jr. augment Fuller’s limited new action filming with destruction montages pulled from WW2 films. Converting flat photography into CinemaScope also disguises their origin: the stock footage works especially well in the final shootout, with flame explosions blasting through the depot, etc.. The commandos’ escape in a stolen plane is another stock shot bonanza: was it ex- RKO veteran Linwood Dunn who remembered the impressive miniature plane crash from 1939’s Five Came Back?   The plane’s unusual three-ruddered tail assembly makes it easy to connect with that older RKO show.

The stock footage isn’t a perfect match with the new shoot (more film grain) and some of Fuller’s footage doesn’t match well with itself either. Fuller  apparently covered his dramatic scenes with only one camera angle. When he decided to shorten a dialogue scene in the editing room, he had nothing to cut away to, and instead relied on optical blow-ups to cover what would be jump-cuts. He does this a lot in his independent pictures — it becomes distracting when the film jumps to what we can tell is the same shot, only blown up bigger. . . it still looks like an erratic jump cut.

The ‘secret’ China Gate ammo dump is located in temple ruins as massive as Angor Wat. Most of it is provided by five or six matte paintings that range from merely unlikely, to patently fake. A high view from the China Gate shows an enormous valley beyond. Major Cham’s quarters are buried beneath a huge statue of a lion, yet the interior seems to be several stories in the air. The only live-action part of this monumental construction is a stretch of blank wall. When the soldiers sneak past rows of ancient statues, most of the shot around them is also a matte painting. The illusion is on the weak side — the temple ruins look almost like a charcoal sketch.

 

Viewers curious about the exact layout of the cave tunnels at Hollywood’s oft-filmed Bronson Caverns location will like the scenes inside Major Cham’s munitions storehouse. The art directors have filled the caves with wooden racks holding guns and bombs. Major Cham and Lucky Legs walk much of the length of the main tunnel. The camera then pans to show all three ‘cave’ tunnel exits from the inside, in one CinemaScope angle.

A notable observation: near the end of this ammo dump scene, a Commie fork lift (!) rolls forward in the cave, and bumps over a depressed part of the floor. Look closely and you’ll see a long rectangular patch in the cave floor where a hole has been filled in. I feel certain that the hole was dug almost two years before for Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers — it’s where Becky Driscoll and Miles Bennell hid from the pursuing alien pod people. Stills exist showing the camera setup for that shot, down in the mud. The filled-in dirt patch lines up exactly where the Body Snatchers’  hole must have been.

We only notice such details because we now can carefully examine every shot. Fuller gets away with many other production value cheats. A distinctive tank-like personnel carrier is seen in the besieged Legionnaire hamlet — but it is also parked outside Major Cham’s China Gate fortress. All in all, Samuel Fuller delivers more than enough action to satisfy its audience of war movie fans. The airborne escape with a pilot dying from loss of blood is very well done. The later Verboten! can barely muster two soldiers and a jeep.

 


 

Viavision [Imprint’s] Blu-ray of China Gate appears to be the same excellent encoding seen on Olive Films’ Blu-ray from 2013. The film elements yield an excellent transfer that allows us to admire Joe Biroc’s B&W  ‘scope images. Victor Young’s beautiful China Gate song is used as underscore and is also sung twice by Nat ‘King’ Cole. Young died while composing the score and his friend Max Steiner finished it for him. Harold Adamson’s China Gate lyrics combine melancholy with Oriental clichés — ‘The Good Earth,’ ‘Bitter Tea.’

Viavision’s extras give China Gate its due. Two extended featurettes and a full commentary are on tap along with the film’s original trailer. An uncritical view of Fuller’s achievement and career comes in Peace of Mind: A Personal Look at China Gate, with Samantha Fuller and Christa Lang Fuller, who sketch a well-rounded portrait of the filmmaker’s unique personality and celebrated achievements. Samm Deighan’s full feature audio commentary does the same thing from an academic perspective, with well-researched information and insights about Fuller’s persistent themes.

A second featurette Tough Girl: Angie Dickinson’s Early Roles in Film is another excellent biographical sketch from Kat Ellinger, whose organized and well-considered evaluation illuminates the meaning of the actress’s screen persona. It’s more than a collection of facts and credits about a ‘starlet’: the issues affecting actresses in the boys’ club of ’50s Hollywood go beyond securing decent parts to play. The publicity suggested that Dickenson was a party girl but Ellinger suggests that a strong personality had to be part of the formula when working with men like Howard Hawks and Frank Sinatra.

This nuts ‘n’ bolts approach may give the wrong impression that I don’t like Fuller’s films. The director repeatedly overcomes adverse production limitations — and often makes those very limitations part of his cinematic strategy. He’s been called a ‘primitive’ but nobody can deny that his movies communicate his values and beliefs, even when he toys with the contradictions of pulp conventions. In the final analysis Fuller’s artistic honesty and genuine love of democratic values is proven by Park Row, his personal and patriotic ode to the free press. He produced that great film solely on his own, because he believed in it so strongly.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


China Gate
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
Full feature audio commentary by Samm Deighan
Featurette Peace of Mind: A Personal Look at China Gate with Samantha Fuller and Christa Lang Fuller
Featurette Tough Girl: Angie Dickinson’s Early Roles in Film with Kat Ellinger
Original Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
April 14, 2022
(6708chin)
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.