China Gate (1957)
From famed director Samuel Fuller comes an early version of the mercenary flick. One that resembles a first class directorial effort at times though sadly it seems to be a film that was cut up from what was probably Fuller’s intentions and put back together by a studio hack in the editing room leaving it rather disappointing in the end. Still, as I prefer to look for positives in most any production, this black and white special offers us more than one on a jungle trek in war torn China with likable leading man Gene Barry leading the way.
Using the dreaded narrator that I’m never much in favor of, the backdrop is set for war torn China in 1954. I’m no history buff on this period so will stick to the man on a mission values and the faces that populate Fuller’s story. Before meeting Gene Barry’s military figure, we’ll be introduced to the always stunning Angie Dickinson as a half Asian brunette known as Lucky Legs. She’s the former Mrs. Barry in our story and if we read between the scripted word, was likely and probably still is a prostitute who knows her way around the jungles and fraternizes with the communist forces and does whatever it takes to survive and support her son that Barry has turned his back on.
“Soldiering is my business.”
Barry is a no nonsense soldier and a racist as well. While Angie looks great and can pass for white, their son is distinctly Asian hence his abandoning wife and child. The two will be drawn together when Barry needs Angie to lead him and a small attack force through occupied jungles to reach an arms depot overseen by Lee Van Cleef. Not only is Van Cleef the leader of the opposition, but he’s in love with Angie and she seems to be quite happy in leading him on for her own betterment.
There is plenty of action and night fighting as the team of eight mercs make their way to Lee Van’s stronghold where a cache of arms are stored that the men have ben sent to destroy before the weapons can be used against them and the various villages around the countryside. As the men tackle one skirmish after another with Angie in tow, their numbers begin to dwindle. The group includes a very young James Hong who according to the IMDB received his first on screen credited role this time out. And while he may be credited on screen, I’m not sure if he ever uttered one word of dialogue though he did get a fair share of screen time by just being in the frame with Barry and the others.
The most well known soldier in the group aside from Barry is Nat King Cole. The smooth vocals of Mr. Cole also supply the theme song for the picture over the opening credits and it’s Cole who is at odds at various points of the march with Barry over his racial prejudices. He’s clearly siding with Angie and her son. At one point in the dialogue, Cole gives his background as being a member of The Big Red One during WW2. A tip of the hat from Fuller who was himself a WW2 vet and would film the 1979 film of the same title with Lee Marvin in the lead role and in which Robert Carradine is more or less playing Fuller as a young recruit.
With a little stealth maneuvering, Angie will have to keep Lee Van occupied while the remaining mercs take care of war time business. While I can’t say for sure, this might be the first on screen kiss Lee Van Cleef ever had received since his debut in High Noon. Let’s face it, he was a much experienced heavy by the time this film went into production. Landing Angie Dickinson for the big moment has to be considered an added bonus for the eventual western icon. From my point of view at least being a long time Angie supporter.
Somewhere in here is the makings of an exhilarating men on a mission flick. There are some exciting wartime exchanges but they come in between overly melodramatic scenes between Angie and Gene that break up the momentum and are not helped out much by some newsreel footage and the dreaded narrator. While I have the blu ray from Olive Films, parts of the movie are well filmed but the camera work zooming in is off putting and I’m not sure if this has been done because of a poor print but it’s like the film goes from widescreen to a cropped TV print at various points in the film. If you’ve seen this and have a definitive answer, please chime in.
Can you spot James Hong in here with the rest of the troop?
All in all, worth a look for the leading actors and for Fuller fans that may have missed this one along the way as I had until now.