China Gate, 1957, 97 mins, Digital
Well we’re back to Samuel Fuller with another one of his pictures from during his run at 20th Century Fox (see also House of Bamboo and Pickup on South Street) but unfortunately I have to report that China Gate is a terrible mess of a film; sad to say its likely the worst I’ve yet seen from Fuller. China Gate is as mad as it is bad, a boys-own war adventure about a bunch of mercs with a common hate for commies delving deep behind enemy lines to blow up an ammo cash of Ruskie shells and bombs. Its the kind of gung-ho macho nonsense that rings particularly hollow after having seen films like The Ascent and Come and See, for one thing. Its low budget, too, doesn’t help, with an unconvincing studio set doubling for the Jungle and some poor matte paintings failing to ‘open up’ the film or offer any real sense of place and scale.
Maybe it could have gotten away by being a simple b-movie action romp typical of its time, but Fuller muddies proceedings by offering some ill-thought out (albeit no doubt well-intentioned) drama about racial prejudice, portraying the nominal ‘hero’ of the film, Sgt Brock (Gene Barry) as a bigot – I’m not certain why Fuller did this, as I spent the film hoping someone would shoot Brock and end my misery watching him (Brock is our heroine’s ex-husband who abandoned her five years before when he saw that their new-born child looked Chinese!).
Meanwhile, watching a young, dark-haired Angie Dickinson portraying a mixed-race Eurasian beauty and a young Lee Van Cleef playing Asian foe Major Cham, is so bizarre it seems like an ill-conceived comedy sketch, as does one long lingering death scene of one of the mercenary band with a broken back: its all very silly. Did I mention one of the merry band is played by crooner Nat King Cole, no less, who proceeds to sing the film’s theme song onscreen not once but twice? Its one of those films where the casting choices and most of the fervent politics leave one with a “pinch me, this can’t be real” feeling as events unfold and racial stereotypes confound. Was Fuller serious, I wondered? Of course he was, in spades. I’ll say one thing for Fuller; he was always all-in, his energy and enthusiasm had won me over in some of his other pictures but alas, not here. China Gate is so daft it might have benefited from a senses of humour, but Fuller is, as ever, absolutely earnest. I suppose that’s why some fans admire him and his films so much, but this film left me pretty cold.