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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...
For more about China Gate and the China Gate Blu-ray release, see China Gate Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on March 27, 2013 where this Blu-ray release scored 2.5 out of 5.
Starring: Gene Barry, Angie Dickinson, Nat 'King' Cole, Paul Dubov, Lee Van Cleef, George Givot
Director: Samuel Fuller
» See full cast & crew
China Gate Blu-ray Review
Fuller running on empty.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, March 27, 2013
And just like that, Vietnam is suddenly all over the news again. On left leaning MSNBC, Rachel Maddow in her introduction to a recent documentary called Hubris has used the rationale behind the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and escalation of the Vietnam conflict as a direct predecessor to what she sees as malfeasance in the buildup to the Iraq War. But the right has its own Vietnam "issue". When a recent episode of The Amazing Race featured a pit stop in Hanoi, replete with a visit to the site of a downed American B-52 and a performance by Communist youth, the pundits on Fox News marched in lock step in apparent disgust over what they perceived as CBS' idiocy and left leaning bias. Vietnam's history is incredibly convoluted, providing ample opportunity for both right and left talking points, and is furthermore tangled up in various Western countries' pseudo-imperialistic ambitions. None of that is even hinted at in the opening of Samuel Fuller's 1957 opus China Gate. Against a backdrop of stock footage, we hear a portentous narrator telling us that the film is dedicated to France (France?!?), for introducing Christianity to the heathens (I redact slightly, but that's the gist of it) and for being the last bulwark against those nasty encroaching Communists. Of course in 1957, the United States hadn't yet really gotten deeply involved in what many on both the right and left would later describe as a quagmire, and the Cold War was very much in full swing, so this almost humorous combination of xenophobia and jingoism is perhaps at least a bit more understandable. But it sets China Gate up right from the get go as a film that is going to deal mostly in stark blacks and whites, with no shades of gray interrupting its political stance, even if its interpersonal stories are at least a bit more nuanced.
China Gate for all its flaws (which we'll get to in a moment) is quite a fascinating offering in the filmographies of several of its participants. Stars Gene Barry and Angie Dickinson never quite captured the brass ring of movie stardom, despite both having at least a few high profile roles in their careers. Both of them are probably going to be best remembered for their television outings, Barry as Bat Masterson and Dickinson for Police Woman. This is also one of the handful of acting roles Nat "King" Cole undertook, though one suspects it didn't hurt to have such a well known singer in the cast to warble the haunting theme song. Speaking of the music, this was the last film that Victor Young scored, and in fact Young died before he could finish it, with (as the credits state) "his good friend" Max Steiner completing everything, making it a fascinating melding of two iconic Golden Age composers. Then there's writer-director-producer Samuel Fuler himself, the agent provocateur who had helmed several iconic low budget films like Pickup on South Street and who would go on to do The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor , but whose time at Fox had not exactly been a bed of roses. Fuller is credited with having made one of the first major films about the Korean conflict (The Steel Helmet), and whatever else may be said about China Gate, it was like its predecessor one of the first major films about the Vietnam conflict.
Dickinson plays the wonderfully nicknamed Lucky Legs, a so-called "half caste" (i.e., half European, half Chinese) woman of relatively ill repute who allegedly runs an opium den and saloon as well as perhaps trafficking in what might politely be called the pleasures of the flesh. Lucky is mother to an adorable young son (Warren Hsieh) whom we meet in the film's first narrative scene (after the prologue), attempting to protect his equally adorable young puppy from a man who obviously means to take it from him and eat it (yes, eat it—there's no other food in Saigon). Lucky is soon recruited by Col. De Sars (Maurice Marsac), who wants the well known Lucky to lead a black ops force through enemy territory to the so-called China Gate, the border with China where the Communists stash their ammunition depots. Lucky is reticent, but is ultimately won over when the Colonel accedes to her demands that the price for her involvement is that her son will be sent to the United States, where his "Asian" looks won't be a hindrance.
Everything seems set until the Colonel introduces the man set to be in charge of the mission, American GI Johnny Brock (Gene Barry). It turns out Brock is not only the estranged husband of Lucky, he's the deadbeat dad to the sweet little boy. Brock had freaked out when the boy was born and Brock noticed his "Chinese" eyes (I am only using terminology lifted directly from the film, so any political incorrectness is not my own, believe me). Obviously, Lucky is in no mood to deal with Brock. That leads to a few more minutes of fairly turgid melodrama, including a major dressing down of Brock by both Lucky and a local Priest who has obviously been able to look past Lucky's "career" choices to see the golden heart within the woman.
Brock has assembled a motley crew of mercenaries, all who are frankly fairly cliché ridden and obviously meant to provide a cross section of various nationalities and loyalties. The most interesting of these is the somewhat strangely named Goldie (Nat "King" Cole), a World War II vet from the 1st Divison (yes, the same Big Red One that Fuller fought in himself and would make into one of his best remembered films in the early eighties). Cole acquits himself quite well in this role (in fact some may argue considerably better than either Barry or especially Dickinson, who just seems out of her league) and sings the haunting title song twice during the film.
Dramatically, China Gate is near laughable at times. In a way it reminded me of a sort of reverse Wages of Fear, with a ragtag group of people traveling through dangerous territory to get explosives to their destination. We get a lot of "meaningful" soliloquys about everything from the senselessness of war to the senselessness of racism, but it's delivered in such portentous dialogue that some may find it hard to take. The film offers some kind of peculiar supporting performances, including a surprisingly low key and natty Lee Van Cleef as Lucky's erstwhile boyfriend who just happens to be the Commander of the munitions depot she's taken the brigade to in order to blow it up.
China Gate was a brief attempt by Fuller to gain respectability with a relatively large budget and interesting (to say the least) cast. It was also perhaps his attempt to refute previous charges that he was himself a Communist, and so the film's "rah-rah" jingoistic spirit is perhaps understandable if no less palatable. The film ends with a supposedly tragic sacrifice and an expected rapprochement, but by then my hunch is few will really care who lives, who dies, and who ends up holding hands as the plaintive title song leads to a fade out.
China Gate Blu-ray, Video Quality
China Gate is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of Olive Films with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.35:1. This 20th Century Fox CinemaScope production offers elements that are in very good to excellent shape, with only occasional damage to report. There's some slight bleed through during the very opening Fox and CinemaScope logos, and then occasionally there's slight damage running down the right center part of the frame intermittently. Scratches are relatively few and far between, though there are the expected dirt, debris and white specks that show up from time to time. Despite this minor issues, the bulk of this high definition presentation looks very good indeed. The image is nicely sharp, with well variegated blacks, whites and gray scale, and contrast is generally quite strong. The film has a lot of stock footage interspersed throughout, and most of that looks pretty ragged. The rear projection and matte shots also look below par, at least when compared to the bulk of the film.
China Gate Blu-ray, Audio Quality
China Gate features a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio Mono mix which sports little damage but which offers relatively anemic low end, meaning some of the climactic explosions don't quite have the sonic "oomph" that younger audiences used to whiz bang soundtracks might be expecting. On the other hand, the beautiful Young-Steiner score sounds surprisingly fulsome, especially in the high and midrange, where the admittedly cliché ridden use of parallel fourths with percussion to evoke a Far Eastern ambience comes through with a great deal of vibrancy. Dialogue is mostly clear, though the climactic final scene with Barry and Goldie in the airplane was more or less completely incomprehensible to me due to the overweening foley effect of the airplane engines. I suspect this is endemic to the stems as I doubt any serious remixing attended this release.
China Gate Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
No supplements are offered on this Blu-ray disc.
China Gate Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
China Gate is far from Fuller's most visceral film, but many fans will no doubt want to check it out since it's a fairly rare Fuller and offers a completely peculiar cast. The film is near laughable in several key spots, with an overarching political incorrectness on any number of levels that cynical contemporary audiences may find hard to believe. This Blu-ray however sports generally excellent video and audio.
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