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.
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.
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!