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
Directed by Samuel Fuller
Expectations: High. Sam Fuller.
It’s been about seven months since I did a Sam Fuller movie, so once again I find myself slacking off immensely on my review journey through his filmography. And every time after I finish a film I think, “Why did it take me so long to watch this?” I love Sam Fuller’s films more than I know how to communicate, and for some reason when I get infatuated with a filmmaker I have an in-born desire to stretch out seeing all of their movies for fear that one day there won’t be any more new ones to see. This is exactly the reason I haven’t seen every Kurosawa film, for example. It’s an irrational fear because when you get through them all, then you have the fun of re-watching them! But I resolve that in 2013 I will do my best to finish the series! Anyway, my personal neuroses aside, China Gate is a fantastic, underseen gem in the Fuller catalog, exhibiting just about everything fans have come to expect from the director.
Set during the end of the First Indochina War in Vietnam, China Gate is an action/adventure tale about a group of men on a mission to destroy an ammo depot. That’s the yarn in the broad sense, but the real tale is the story of Angie Dickinson and the lengths to which she’ll go for her child. She agrees to lead the men through enemy territory as she has developed a good rapport and reputation with the enemy forces through smuggling and prostitution. As I said, she’s a single mom willing to do anything necessary to provide for her child. The lead male of the group is her ex-husband Brock, a racist who left her upon seeing their son’s Asian eyes after he was born. Herein lies the true journey of China Gate, and while modern viewers will probably find it too exaggerated and heavy-handed, for the time it is yet another bold picture confronting hypocrisy and racism from Fuller.
The film opens with some narration that sets the stage of the war, detailing some of France’s colonial efforts to control the region. This is visually represented by the use of real stock footage, one of Fuller’s trademarks. He would later use it to great effect in Verboten!, but it works almost as well here. Scenes of wartime explosions and planes dropping humanitarian food crates add a reality to the film that staged scenes would never capture. At times the footage has an opposite effect, though, highlighting just how fake the fabricated jungle sets look in contrast to the reality, but it’s a bit ridiculous to criticize such an ambitious low-budget picture from my seat in the future. You just can’t judge it with modern sensibilities, as for the time (and the budget) it’s all very well produced. It’s also important to consider what staged versions of the stock footage would have looked like. In the late ’50s, special FX were very primitive, and there would’ve been no good way to capture the same footage. It’s a win-win for Fuller, but it’s still a unique and interesting move on his part. I can’t think of any other director that actively and boldly used stock footage on a regular basis like this. Doesn’t mean they aren’t out there, but I’m pretty sure Fuller was a pioneer in the field.
China Gate also marks Fuller’s return to black and white filmmaking, but he retains the widescreen, CinemaScope framing of his previous two color pictures. Unfortunately, the film has only ever been available on VHS (and now streaming), so the widescreen image is not available. The Netflix streaming print teases you at the opening and the close with short sections in widescreen, but after that it’s all Pan & Scan. Boo! Where’s Criterion when you need them? In any case, I can tell that it would be a stunning picture in widescreen, featuring gorgeous B & W composition, but nearly all of that is lost in the translation to the cursed 1.33:1 ratio (cursed in cases like these, anyway). I got used to it, as always, but the closing shots in widescreen made me shake my head in disgust that the film isn’t available in its true format. [Update: Olive Films has released China Gate on Blu-ray/DVD and it's widescreen! Hurrah!]
In a way, China Gate is like multiple Sam Fuller films put together. It’s got a military vibe, a lurid romance, and ahead-of-its-time social commentary all rolled into one film, so Fuller fans should be very satisfied with this one. I don’t know how non-fans would do, and I think it would be better to test the waters on something more tried and true like Pickup on South Street or The Steel Helmet.
The acting is great all around. I was especially impressed with Angie Dickinson in one of her earliest film roles, but Nat ‘King’ Cole was absolutely fantastic. He imbues his character with such history and reality through his line delivery that you actually believe him to be the character he plays. I’m not really familiar with him as a screen actor, but he was superb here. His monologue about wanting a child is so heartfelt and affecting, and considering the time this was made and the fact that he’s basically berating a white man for petty, bullshit racism, it makes it all the better. Fuller never beat around the bush in his screenplays, and this is easily one of my favorite pieces of extended dialogue so far in his catalog.
But if there’s one thing that I always feel is a weak point in a Fuller film, it’s the romance. His direct, highly melodramatic style just doesn’t lend itself to believable romantic encounters. Thankfully these scenes don’t make up a majority of the film, and here they serve more of a purpose than simple girl-meets-boy bullshit. These scenes represent the clashing of ideas about cultures and the inner struggle of Brock’s character, as Dickinson and the other members of the team slowly show him the error of his ways.
China Gate also features a couple of excellent action scenes, the best coming when a group of Communist soldiers in a machine-gun boat happen upon the group. The ending is also rather thrilling, crosscutting between the distraction that Dickinson provides to the enemy leader (played by Lee Van Cleef), and the men setting up the explosives around camp. And even though this is 1957, these explosives go off with a BANG! Again, stock footage saves the day where the budget would’ve never allowed anything of that sort.
For fans of Samuel Fuller, China Gate is a must. It confronts racism head-on and delivers a compelling story filled with tension and explosive action. And it features a young James Hong in one of his first roles! There are literally loads of things to like about this movie for those inclined to watch it… so watch it!