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China Gate (Blu-ray Review)

22 Apr, 2013 By: Mike Clark

$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Gene Barry, Angie Dickinson, Nat King Cole, Lee Van Cleef.

Casting Angie Dickinson as a Eurasian saloon keeper named Lucky Legs — and then directing her to sit in semi-recline amid a CinemaScope frame — was inspired even by Samuel Fuller standards. Angie breakthrough Rio Bravo was still two years away, but anyone looking must have caught onto the fact that Gene Barry wasn’t the selling point here.

Filmed during a kind of heyday for Fuller when the producer-director-writer found 20th Century Fox to be a harmonious playground, China Gate will pass as the first Hollywood movie about what became the Vietnam quagmire until someone can name me an earlier title of equal weight. At this point, America was simply advising the French, though the protagonists here are a ragtag collection directly from the soldiers-of-fortune playbook, even if the casting of Nat King Cole as one of them — and make that a singing Nat King Cole — threatens on paper to make the picture go a little gonzo.

Actually, Cole gives such a respectable performance that I’m a little surprised he didn’t get more screen work. He even gets his foot impaled during a jungle trek to discover the tunnels in which the local Ho Chi Minh claque is hiding its artillery. I can remember my childhood best friend, Jim Freeman, calling me up in 1957 after getting home from the theater to say, “You’re not going to believe what happens to Nat King Cole” — who, to play off one of the greatest ’50s hits, was not “walking his baby back home.”

In addition to having delivered booze to the Commies and, thus, developing a sense of local geography, Ms. Legs is additionally a good choice to have been recruited for the mission because the North Vietnamese major whose fortress the band is trying to crack (Lee Van Cleef, whaddya know?) has a yen for her. So does the Barry character, but here it gets complicated. The two have a little history (read: a 5-year-old son), though dad bailed out because the kid looks Asian and not like, say, Bat Masterson — the TV cowboy Barry would soon be playing on TV. This earns him the permanent ire of a local priest played by Marcel Dalio — who, unless it’s my imagination, seemed to be playing a religious figure everywhere I looked during my movie childhood. Racial and ethnic tensions were apparently a pet subject for Fuller during this era, re Run of the Arrow and The Crimson Kimono.

Gate probably wouldn’t have the cult rep it has today had it come out 10 years later in the Duke Wayne/Green Berets ’60s, but as a product of the auteurist ’50s, I suspect it has always spurred a “Let Sam Be Sam” attitude among those not sharing Fuller’s politics (not that they’ve ever been easy to pigeonhole). I can’t recall if I was able to secure a 35mm Scope print of Gate for the Fuller retrospective I programmed for the American Film Institute in the ’70s, but I do know I worried about it because it was an independent production that the studio distributed (and a lot of those prints seemed to disappear). The movie played Encore cable channels a lot in the ’90s, but always in wretched pan-and-scan prints that the network’s targeted outhouse demographic seemed to demand.

Olive’s print shows some wear in certain reels but exhibits visual depth most of the time. The major league music credit is unusual — Victor Young and Max Steiner — because Young, who was working himself to death in the mid-1950s, died at 57 during production — less than a month after his greatest triumph (Around the World in 80 Days) opened in New York before the composer could see the degree to which the Decca soundtrack LP caught on with the public.

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