The only sad aspect of the new Olive Films Blu-Ray/DVD release of Samuel Fuller's 1957 masterwork CHINA GATE is that my great fellow cineaste Ric Menello didn't live to see it. For us, it was a Holy Grail title – but one which we avoided for decades, an explanation to be given later.
That said, movie fans – particularly Sam Fuller's deserved legions – should be dancing in the streets. While this may not be as well-known as the director's Big Red One – for me it's the Big Blu-Ray One...I can't seem to get enough of it.
It's a landmark work in many ways – specifically because it's the first motion picture to deal with that annoying skirmish known as the Vietnam conflict (when it was still that annoying skirmish known as French Indochina conflict), beating out Joseph Mankiewicz's adaptation of The Quiet American by more than a half a year. But while Mank's respectable pic wakes viewers up with a slap in the face, Sam's movie is a punch in the guts. With an acknowledging, affectionate nod to that loving the “…smell of napalm in the morning” camp, CHINA GATE (to me) is the best movie about Vietnam ever made.
CHINA GATE paints Nam as a totally evil, corrupt world...a place where getting killed is a perk; it's a living nightmare where the most commendable character is an alcoholic prostitute.
That otherwise dubious personage is enacted with panache by Angie Dickinson in possibly her finest role. She's Leah – a white-looking half-caste – who is renowned throughout the land as Lucky Legs (for obvious reasons). When an eager commandant asks about her celebrated appendages, Lucky replies, “I keep them covered on social calls.” Her selling herself has made her the owner of the vicinity's only refuge a bar/brothel; the French, the American mercenaries, and the Red Chinese give Leah leeway, due to the fact that, when not screwing anyone of note, she's the property of Major Cham – the top, feared Commie honcho in the territory. Lucky Legs' goal is to get the hell out of Viet Nam – possibly to America where she can start anew with her small son.
Cham – a bizarre and actually brilliant Lee Van Cleef – tries to sell the Mao-mantra to her...offering Lucky untold riches and (unbelievably) freedom if she limits her talents solely to him. We doubt this love match would work, as when we first see Van Cleef he's surrounded by a harem of concubines. That this would-be relationship underlines the contemporary tag of “it's complicated” is further explored by Fuller not portraying Van Cleef as a total pig, but as a soft-spoken, intelligent scholar. Dickinson, no dummy either, angrily chides him by frankly revealing that she remembers when he didn't buy into all this Marxist crap. Warlord Van Cleef is thus nothing less than another lying, greedy politician.
But that's getting ahead of the narrative. CHINA GATE opens with the French trying to barter with Lucky Legs for her services as a guide to Van Cleef's palace. Word has gotten out that he's stockpiled a mountain full of munitions and, possibly, WMDs (yeah, this movie was made in 1957)...and only Lucky's “special free pass” can guide a group of search-and-destroy experts through the dangerous terrain.
Lucky's about to tell them all where to go when she discovers that the head of the battalion is to be none other than Yankee mercenary Sgt. Brock – a slimy, snarling Gene Barry. What changes her mind is that Barry is Lucky’s ex-husband – and the father of her child. The idea of him getting killed on the mission brings Lucky such delight that she agrees at once. And with good reason. Brock's a violent psychotic racist who not only walked out on his pregnant bride, but (like a way coarser Clive Brooke who helped change Marlene Dietrich's name to Shanghai Lily in von Sternberg's Shanghai Express) is the one mostly responsible for her re-christening as Lucky Legs, to say nothing of prompting her to embark on her new vocation, aka the oldest profession.
What ignited Brock's taking a powder was the first look at his son. Barry's Anglo appearance matched with Dickinson's deceptive white-bread genetics pulled the rug out from under the bigot's expectations. “I saw his eyes and got sick inside,” moans Barry, who took off faster than Dick Cheney getting a draft notice. His tearful diatribe about how God could have played such a miserable trick on him makes you want to hug the maniac – with a trash compacter. What does one do with the Brocks of the world – fifty years before the Tea Party?
Gene's genes aside, Barry's treatment of his men is even worse than his hatred/lust for his ex. True, these men are a ragtag band of international scumbags – less a dirty dozen than a disgusting dozen – but is that any call to order a soldier's execution just because he's fatigued? It's obvious early on that Brock is The Naked and the Dead's Sergeant Croft on steroids.
The journey to Major Cham's provides the bulk of CHINA GATE – and it's a Fuller pip. “I remember when my wife went crazy,” reminisces a sociopath Francais seconds before he's shot to pieces. And that's a lighter moment.
Lucky could care less, effortlessly skanking the Red outpost leaders en route to the team's objective. The sex-in-war theme is one that Fuller demanded be told. A treasured unmade project was his take on the Jesse James saga, wanting to show up the infamous outlaw for the little prick he was. According to Fuller, Jesse used his prettified looks to disguise himself as a woman of ill repute...entering Union bivouacs with carnal intent...and ending by (dare we say) blowing the blue bellies to bits. Can't imagine why that movie never got made. But CHINA GATE gives the director a chance to at least offer a more traditional depiction of this rather playful tactic. Methinks that prior to Lucky's participation the notorious pathway in question was simply called the Chi Minh Trail.
After Lucky Legs, the only other character even remotely close to human is fellow American mercenary Goldie – Nat King Cole in a terrific and rare dramatic turn (although he does sing the great Harold Adamson-penned title tune TWICE; think I’m kidding – go to iTunes and download the ditty; it’s a keeper). Goldie is also the recipient of a horrific Cong booby trap, one of the most grueling sequences in the annals of 20th century cinema (as well as in the annals of 20th Century-Fox). Like Brock, Goldie's rationalization for his involvement in the proceedings is a combination of boredom and the economy (“Korea got cold, Indochina got hot”); Barry's, not surprisingly, digs deeper into the bone marrow (after Korea there were “still a lot of live Commies around”).
Once the Band of Muthas reaches their desti-nation, the sparks literally fly. The last act of CHINA GATE is chock Fuller suspense and shock – a veritable textbook on bravura filmmaking. Images branded into my brain in-clude spectacular compositions of breathless lip-biting tension...along with unforgettable vis-uals of Dickinson's outstanding gams walking amongst crates marked High Explosives.
I haven't been able to find any interviews with either Barry or Dickinson regarding this movie – which seems odd, as CHINA GATE is certainly a project to be proud of. Dickinson must have been a favorite of the director's since she previously re-dubbed all of Sarita Montiel's dialogue in Run of the Arrow when the Hispanic actress' thick accent proved indecipherable. The rest of the cast is aces and includes Paul Dubov, George Givot, James Hong and (last but not least) Marcel Dalio.
The soundtrack to CHINA GATE is bittersweet – the final score of composer Victor Young. His beautiful music is slightly sabotaged by his longtime friend Max Steiner, who completed the assignment when Young died during production. Steiner, perhaps Hollywood's ultimate frustrating talent, uses his patented Mickey Mousing to ill effect; mercifully, his contributions are brief.
The cinematography deserves a big thumbs-up for Joe Biroc. And here's where I explain my opening paragraph's statement on how my pal Ric and I never really saw CHINA GATE. The movie, as all Fox titles of the period, was shot in CinemaScope, but, sadly, since the picture's original release, has never been available to audiences in that format. Of course, all TV prints were full-frame pan-and-scan. Unfathomably – so were the theater revival prints. I recall with disdain anxiously slapping down my ticket money at the Thalia – only to see a 16MM television print of CHINA GATE.
Years later, the Fox Movie Channel (before it corroded to its current pitiful state) showed all the Fuller Fox pics (a terrific lineup comprising Fixed Bayonets, Pickup on South Street, Hell and High Water, House of Bamboo and 40 Guns). The scope titles were all presented in proper 2.35 (or 2.55)...When it came to CHINA GATE...it was a miserable case of same-old/same-old: an unacceptable full-frame version (albeit from a pristine 35MM master). What was the deal with this movie? Apparently, it had something to do with rights. While Fox owns all the other Fuller titles, they obviously relinquished complete rights to CHINA GATE, Sam's last flick for the studio.
So what was the fate of CHINA GATE? Why was its journey as torturous for us Fuller fans, as it was for Lucky Legs, Brock and the rest? How did Olive Films/Paramount Home Entertainment wind up with it? Of course, I want to know – but will not carp about the result. Olive Films has uncovered an excellent 35MM transfer in (at last!) full CinemaScope. Finally, I can see and appreciate this classic the way it was meant to be seen. And some slight wear aside, the print is in remarkably good shape (only abrasive intermittent stock footage belies the picture's minimal budget).
No mere hyperbole, CHINA GATE is one of the primo Blu-Ray/DVD releases of 2013. It took 56 years to get here – a helluva trip for a helluva movie!
Nothing beats taking advantage of your friends – especially when it comes to their knowledge/involvement with movies your love and admire. So,...I took advantage. Here's a brief conversation I had with actress/writer/producer Christa Fuller, Sam's widow, on the joys of CHINA GATE.
“You know, the funny thing about CHINA GATE is that Sam was accused of being such a right winger. That's kind of crazy – for many reasons – but if one watches the film...one would almost think Sam was pro-Communist...the way the red major and some of the other Maoists are portrayed. The Gene Barry character, on the other hand is an oaf...a retard and an oaf! Yet everyone still talks of coming to America. Sam wasn't necessarily anti-Communist – he was anti-Stalin. He thought – and rightly so – that Stalin was just as bad as Hitler. He killed 20 million of his own people in gulags! The movie’s ambiguity to me is stunning.
“The casting of Goldie is an interesting story. Nat King Cole and Sam were great friends. Sam and Nat registered a song they recorded together: their version of I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles. They did it out of pure fun at Nat's recording studio. Nat loved Sam's movies, and particularly loved the script of CHINA GATE. He had told Sam, 'I would love to be in one of your films.' At the time, he was one of the hottest acts in the country. The part of Goldie, as originally scripted, was not written for a black actor. Sam said, 'You like CHINA GATE– you can play Goldie.' Sam was always looking to cast African-Americans as real people – away from the butlers and maids, you know. Going back to The Steel Helmet. 'Yes, m'am, no m'am, the watermelon man, Jim Crow...' Sam cast James Edwards as a doctor in 1950. That was practically unheard of. Like Bertolucci said about Sam, ‘Fuller movies are like jazz. They really live in front of you.’ It's funny...I just got a check for $350 from ASCAP – residuals from the song China Gate...It's such a beautiful song, isn't it?
“How CHINA GATE ended up at Paramount is beyond me. I haven't the slightest idea [Drat –will I never know! Now I’m a man obsessed!].
“Angie Dickinson became acquainted with Sam through his assistant, Anita. She and Angie were friends. Anita recommended her for the dubbing job of Sarita Montiel in Run of the Arrow. Sarita Montiel was the Brigitte Bardot of Spain – and she was married to Sam's best friend, Anthony Mann. Sam loved Tony, and cast Sarita in the part of Yellow Moccasin, which she was perfect for...but you couldn't understand what she was saying – she had a thick Spanish accent. So Angie got the part to dub Sarita. She was so charming – really, she charmed everybody...and Sam said, 'Hmmm, you could look Eurasian...' She conferred with Richard Brooks whom Sam had introduced her to (they remained an item for quite a while) and took the part. She's fantastic in it, by the way. So adorable, don't you agree? Angie/Lucky Legs is like all of Sam's women characters: strong! She tells the guys off. Have you noticed that in all of Sam's films? Sam's always called a man's director...but he's just as much a woman's director! The women always put the males in his movies back on the good road, so to speak: Barbara Stanwyck in 40 Guns, Jean Peters in Pickup on South Street...Granted, Richard Widmark has to beat Peters up a few times before he realizes that she loves him, but, then again he's a sociopath in that film...Then there's The Naked Kiss with Constance Towers. The women characters are always amazing. Angie Dickinson [in CHINA GATE] never sombers into vulgarity, but is a classy call girl........probably inspired by some ladies of the night [Sam] encountered when he was a copy boy and then a crime reporter...Unlike this tough love in his films, Sam was a real gentleman. All during our marriage, he never divulged who he had previously slept with...He hated physical violence, and never would have EVER thought of raising a hand toward me. Even during typical husband/wife arguments...that simply was not an option. Henry Miller once told me privately after meeting Sam, 'You married an innocent.' I think he was surprised. The violence in his films is something to be abhorred – it is not a reflection or any sort of admirable machismo.
“I especially like CHINA GATE because it is a pop culture type of film but also says a lot politically. I'm specifically intrigued by its pulp-fiction violent cartoon approach which, when you come to think of it, was the only way to tell this story. Sam realized that it was frustrating for an artist because you could never capture the whole truth...You lie with the camera! It was, after all, the first film to deal with Vietnam. Curiously enough, Sam caught no flak from Fox about it. Zanuck was a die-hard Republican, but had the spirit of a Democrat. The French, however, were upset with the movie. They really didn't want to educate the masses as to their involvement in Indochina. The French basically wanted to stay in self-denial and blame everything on the stupid Americans. Romain Gary was at the time the French Consul General in Los Angeles, and he called a meeting with Sam to discuss CHINA GATE, and to make sure it didn't show France in a bad light. Which it doesn't. The French want to play it safe. They want to be friends with the Russians, then America...but, you know, if push comes to shove....Well, if push comes to shove these days, we'll all be dead! Coincidentally, Godard, Chabrol and Truffaut were all working for the Parisian P.R. arm of Fox during this period – and they all loved the movie. Years later, in Pierrot le Fou, Godard had [Anna] Karina wearing a military cap nearly identical to Dickinson’s. It was his homage to CHINA GATE.
“I'm not sure if Sam got everything he wanted with CHINA GATE, but I do know that he liked it a lot. It didn't take long to shoot, and was entirely shot on the Fox backlot. Being European, it was initially one of my least favorite of his films, but seeing it again now...and looking at the good side of what America is about, or, more precisely, what American can be...I've really come to love it. I mean, everyone wanting to come to America...Sam cherished that whole melting-pot aspect. Even though we have so much more work to do – look how much has happened since this movie was released in the 1950s. Because of that, I really can appreciate CHINA GATE on a whole new level. I am amazed by the movie’s modernity. Then, of course, there's Dickinson's character – a real feminist, if you think about it. I like the way she takes charge, and tells men off.”
CHINA GATE. Black and White. Widescreen [2.35:1 1080p High Definition]; mono audio: [1.0 DTS-HD MA]. UPC: 887090056601
Cat #: OF566. SRP: $29.95.
Also available on DVD: UPC: 887090056502 Cat #: OF565. SRP: $24.95