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Near the end of the French phase of the Vietnam War, a group of mercenaries are recruited to travel through enemy territory to the Chinese border, to blow up an arms depot. A Eurasian smuggler, Lucky Legs, agrees to use her connections to help them, in return getting her son into America. The racist father of the boy, Sergeant Brock, is also part of the multinational group. Lucky Legs must use the love of a Eurasian guerilla leader, Major Cham, to get access to the base. Will they destroy the base, and will Brock overcome his racism before Lucky Legs makes The Ultimate Sacrifice? Written by
Sam Fuller's film about communist lands misses the mark
Sam Fuller's worst war film is worth watching-or at least scanning-for several reasons. The most obvious is the bizarre casting. Then there is the unpersuasive attempt to recreate Vietnam on a studio backlot,which would be duplicated with not much more success years later by Stanley Kubrick in Full Metal Jacket(1987). Finally,both the screw loose plotting and the rabid Red-baiting have become unintentionally comic with the passage of time. This was in fact Sam Fuller's first-ever film for a major Hollywood studio(Twentieth Century-Fox)and his first to be presented in full widescreen Cinemascope.
A voice-over introduction sets a hyperbolic tone: "With the end of the Korean War,France was left alone to hold the hottest front in the world and became the barrier between Communism and the rape of Asia." Moments later,we learn that because the dirty Reds have put the Vietnamese town of Sun Toy under siege,a little boy's(Warren Hsieh)pet puppy is about to be eaten! Presumably because 1957,American audiences did not know much about the country or the war,Fuller spends most of the first act spinning out a fanciful interpretation of the situation,blaming many of the country's problems on the Chinese Communists and their massive underground ammunition bunker at China Gate. The French Legionaires decide it to blow it up,and call in explosives expert Sgt. Brock(Gene Barry). The only person who can lead them from Sun Toy to China Gate is Lucky Legs(Angie Dickinson in one of her first major roles),who is allegedly half-Chinese. She's also Brock's ex,and if that weren't enough,the kid with the puppy is their son! That's doubly hard to believe because the stars generate all the sexual chemistry of two wet paper towels. Not to mention in 1957,white actors or actresses were playing roles of minorities,whether Latino or Asian or Arabian were stereotypical then.
After that's been established,the already pokey action stops cold for Goldie(Nat "King" Cole) to not only demonstrate his acting abilities but also sings the theme song. Then off they go,with a half dozen or so more Legionaires and a couple of boxes of highly explosive detonators. At every opportunity.one or more of these guys bears his tortured soul,and as they get closer to the Chicorns,it becomes apparent that our girl Lucky has been a sort of one-woman welcoming committee whose mission is to boost morale in every way that she can. All the guys know her because she makes regular visits to the Chinese to deliver cognac and sex,even though her main squeeze is the commander of China Gate,Maj. Cham(Lee Van Cleef),yet another half-Chinese who is in line for a promotion to Moscow.
With only a few exceptions,the combat scenes are as phony as the rest. They were filmed on cheap-looking sets with little originality or energy. Nothing on screen comes as close to Fuller's better work in "The Steel Helmet",and "The Big Red One". Still,"China Gate" is instructive. It's a perfect example of Hollywood's attempt to turn every post-war conflict into another World War II. When the film does try to draw any distinctions,it still reduces the action to good guys versus bad guys. If a few Americans will just go over there and blow up stuff and shoot some guys,those benighted foreigners will see the error of their ways and everything will straighten itself out. That's a bit of oversimplification,but given the loopy politics of China Gate,it's not too far off the mark. It misses it.
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