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June 26, 2014

China Gate

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Samuel Fuller - 1957
Olive Films Region 1 DVD

"With Fuller, the distinction between the personal plot and its political context evaporates with the first leggy sprawl of Angie Dickinson." Andrew Sarris in The American Cinema

And with it, Sarris should have added, any sense that that this is a rigidly right wing view of the conflict in what was then French Indo-China. Yes, the commies are the bad guys. Fuller makes that point clear when a French priest tells mercenary Gene Barry about how he got his leg cut off. Dickinson's character is know as "Lucky Legs", and she is able to act as an apolitical traveler between the opposing forces in Indo-China. The priest is certainly unlucky, but his minor part in the narrative can be seen as a variation on the use of legs and feet by Fuller. What is often overlooked in discussing Pick-up on South Street is Richard Widmark's response to the feds, "Are you waving a flag at me?", and one of the main plot points of China Gate is racism in the United States, personified by Barry. Fuller's anti-Communism may have peaked here, but he never resisted the urge to point out what he thought was the biggest failing of the United States.

The introductory shot of Angie Dickinson's legs also is visually fitting for a film which is mostly about a group of free-lance soldiers hiking through the countryside in search of a hidden tunnel with a large cache of weapons supplied by Russia. One of the best scenes pivots on the close-up of a foot, that of Nat "King" Cole when he steps on a very long spike that pierces through is boot. Fuller cuts back to show Cole with a hand in his mouth, which he removes. The man is in incredible pain, and must remain silent in order not to get the attention of the nearby enemy. And perhaps it takes a vocalist to have the ability to express agony without making a sound. The scene is more effective that had we heard him scream. On the more comic side is a scene with Dickinson leading a group of Vietnamese guerrillas in "La Marseillaise", with its chorus of "Marchon, marchon", again reiterating the theme of using legs and feet. Barry's character of Brock is noted as having walked away from Dickinson, unable to accept that his racially mixed son looks more Chinese than American. The film ends with Brock walking away from a bombed out city with his newly accepted son. The shot that indicates the reunion frames the young boy in full, with Brock seen from the waist down.

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I had seen China Gate once before. It was in the summer of 1971, when awareness of Vietnam and Ho Chi Minh, who briefly appears in China Gate, was more significantly part of American life. I was taking classes at UC Berkeley, where there was an extraordinary series of films presented on campus. In the intervening years, I have since seen all of Fuller's theatrical features, plus read his autobiography which clears up some misunderstandings about his political leanings.

Someone only familiar with the title song might think that not only does China Gate take place in China, but in Hollywood's idea of China. And for all I know, that might have been what lyricist Harold Adamson had in mind when Cole sings of "bitter tea" (of General Yen?) and the "good earth". The title song is musically one of the film's strong points, with Victor Young's music mostly evoking the China part of China Gate. The casting followed the standards of the time with Angie Dickinson and Lee Van Cleef barely passing for Eurasians, with some smaller parts filled by Chinese and Chinese-American actors. Be that as it may, it was genius of Fuller to cast Cole, especially at a time when black actors were rarely seen in mainstream Hollywood films. China Gate may well fail under historical and cultural scrutiny, but Nat "King" Cole's presence, glistening with sweat from the jungle heat, transcends any scholarly concerns.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at June 26, 2014 07:44 AM