China Gate (1957)

3 05 2014

An American film dealing with French-Indochina never sounds particularly promising. Even today, where most of our war films are “gritty” survival tales that carefully recycle nationalist sentiments, it sounds troubling. For the 1950s, it sounds like it could be either extremely aggressive or potentially so backwards and problematic that it would sooner be forgotten. Parts of Samuel Fuller’s China Gate haven’t aged well. The film’s casually anti-communist rhetoric is tame in comparison to much of what was being expressed in Hollywood at the same time, but it does suggest the dedication to capitalism had bleed into Fuller’s brain. Weirdly, the context of the film doesn’t take away from what its truly about. Fuller has in his own passionate and hamfisted way sculpted a film that sure, comments on race relations in a superficial way, but it provides something deeper and more satisfying than the triumphant tales of color-blindness that populated the multiplex.

1

Sergeant Brock has been asked to lead a group of men into Chinese border, infiltrate enemy territory, and blow up their base. Brock, who we are to assume has no other options, is on board with the mission. However, the group’s secret weapon is his Eurasian ex-wife, Lucky Legs. Though never formally divorced, he separated from her once her son was born and looked more traditionally Asian. Lucky agrees to the mission with the reward that her son gets sent to America. She tries to reconnect with Brock, and while he still has feelings for her, he remains uncomfortable about his son. He can’t get over his feelings for the woman he loved, but at the same time he can’t get over his racism.

2

Now, I can see someone reading the previous description and seeing the film easily going the route of Brock unlearning his prejudice in classic, condescending and simplistic Hollywood style. That doesn’t quite happen, though. By the film’s conclusion, he confesses that he wants a family with Lucky, even if that includes his son. However, earlier in the film, following a tender but misread moment he says that he could patch up their relationship by lying. He could say he cares about their son, but he doesn’t want to lie. With this scene in mind, its difficult to read their reconciliation as a performance. He’s actually only concerned about Lucky.

3

While the film dives into Brock’s psyche and he tries to work through his racism, I would argue that the film’s real hero in Lucky Legs. There’s something awkward about a Eurasian woman being played by Angie Dickinson, who is of exclusively European descent. The biggest problem could be that the film suggests something resembling colorblindness – that Lucky’s background obviously didn’t matter to Brock until the manifestation of their sexual relationship produced something troubling to him. I think the film suggests sort of the opposite, and hints at what passing as white implies. Lucky herself is in a unique position, she’s beloved all over Asia (“she lived like a prostitute” the film not so gracefully tells us) and this is obviously an extension of her perceived whiteness. Her plight is summed up quite wonderfully at the film’s beginning, “I’m a little bit of everything, and a lot of nothing.” Sure, it sounds maudlin, but Fuller’s constant centering of Dickinson means her performance, while surrounded by potentially melodramatic trappings, registers as something both empowering and grounded.

4

I’m sure not all audience members see Dickinson as the film’s true lead. Maybe that’s because of some social conditioning or maybe because Gene Barry, as Brock, has just as much screen time. On the other hand, he is the  far weaker character. A man whose racism isn’t perceived as the “interesting” anti-hero trait that it would be viewed as in a lesser film. Instead, it’s a problem that Fuller expects him to fucking deal with as soon as possible and the rest of us aren’t going wait around for him to have his “aha!” moment of peace and clarity. Dickinson’s seduction-and-destruction technique is amazing to watch, not to mention perhaps a distant link to Jonathan Glazer’s recent Under the Skin. While Glazer’s film mystified people, Fuller is more direct. Dickinson needs to do this to save her son. Her death at the end of the film seems tragic, but it is almost inevitable. The things that influence society – poverty and war here – are the things used, fittingly enough, to keep a racist patriarchal capitalist society alive. Dickinson’s existence is thus, in opposition to the society that her and the rest of the film’s heroes superficially claim to be fighting in defense of.

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