Cast & Crew
Nat "king" Cole
Lee Van Cleef
In 1954, along a mountain range known as the China Gate, a small Northern Vietnamese village remains as the last holdout against the steadily encroaching Communist doctrine voiced by Ho Chi Minh. The starving peasants have paid dearly for their idealism, and are pounded daily by bombs. One day, a little boy guards his puppy from the hungry villagers, running to his mother, Lucky Legs, the infamous woman who operates the local saloon. The French, who have occupied Indochina for 300 years, are trying to keep it from being overrun by the Communists, and have assigned Colonel De Sars a ragtag band of soldiers of fortune, whose goal is to locate the tunnels in which the Communists have secreted their vast artillery supplies. To help ferret out the tunnels, the colonel also turns to Lucky, whose many treks across the jungle selling cognac to the soldiers have given her a familiarity with both the Communists and the territory. The China Gate is guarded by Major Cham, a half-caste Vietnamese officer who is in love with Lucky. When Lucky protests that this is not her war, the colonel reminds her that although she appears Caucasian, she is really half Vietnamese, and then offers her $5,000 and a new bar in exchange for guiding the demolition patrol. Instead, Lucky bargains to have her five-year-old son sent to the safety of America. After the colonel agrees to her terms, he introduces her to the American explosives expert who is to lead the expedition, Johnny Brock. Upon seeing Brock, Lucky slaps his face and storms off. Brock, who was married to Lucky when she was an idealistic girl known as Lia, walked out on her after she gave birth to their Asian-looking son. When the colonel informs Brock that Lucky had agreed to cooperate to save her son, Brock asks Father Paul's help in persuading her to change her mind. The priest, who loathes Brock for his treatment of Lia, retorts that Brock's rejection caused her to turn to a life of prostitution and drugs. After the priest refuses to help, Brock visits Lucky and sees his son for the first time in five years. Brock, who cannot accept the half-caste boy, admonishes Lucky not to condemn the child to a life in Vietnam just to spite his father. Lucky relents, and Brock begins to organize the expedition under the command of the French officer, Captain Caumont. The group consists of Brock, whose lust for adventure caused him to join the French Foreign Legion; Goldie, a dedicated opponent of Communism; Private Jaszi, a Czech patriot who hates the Russians for what they have done to his country; Private Andreades, a Greek; and several French soldiers who wonder why the Americans are not providing more aid to the French effort. Brock divides the highly explosive primers in two, and gives half to Goldie and keeps the rest. When they reach the first Communist camp, Communist soldiers welcome Lucky and her cases of cognac. While Lucky distracts the soldiers, Brock and the others skirt by the camp. After stopping for the night, Jaszi has a nightmare about a Russian soldier and attacks Goldie in his sleep. Concerned about Jaszi's mental stability, Brock cold-bloodedly announces that he must die. When Jaszi begs to be allowed to finish the mission, Brock gives him a reprieve. After making their way past a Communist-occupied village, the group enters a jungle littered with land mines. Lucky warns that a guard is watching from a tree house high above them, and makes her way to the lookout to disarm him. After the guard, a friend of Lucky's, apprises her of the location of the jungle mines, Brock stealthily enters and slits his throat. Alone in the tree house, Brock and Lucky embrace and admit that they have feelings for each other. When Lucky realizes that Brock still is unable to accept their son, however, she breaks down in tears. The next day, as they continue their journey, Private Andreades slips from a steep ridge and breaks his back. As he lays dying, he chastises Brock for his treatment of Lucky. When Brock defends himself by insisting that he was only being honest about his feelings for their son, Lucky replies that he is the only person who has ever made her ashamed of her mixed race. That night, when the Communists open fire on the expedition, Brock uses half the explosives to blow them up. Later, surrounded by Communists, Goldie steps on a spike protruding from the jungle floor and must endure the excruciating pain in silence. As Brock bandages Goldie's foot, Goldie, simmering with resentment against Brock, explains that his wife died because she could not give him a child. Goldie then vows to get Lucky and her son to safety in the States. Pushing on through the jungle, the band finally comes to the China Gate. There, Cham welcomes Lucky, and she reminds him of a time when he hated the brutality of war and the Communists. Cham, thirsting for power at the hands of the Russians, chides her for deserting him for an American and then offers to marry her and adopt her son. To impress Lucky, he shows her the tunnel packed with arsenal. Lucky, appalled, calls it a butcher shop. She then reports the position of the tunnel and its guards to Brock, who confesses that he is still in love with her and is finally ready to accept his son. When Brock asks Lucky to marry him, she replies that they were never divorced. Later, at the tunnel, Lucky distracts the guards with jokes as Brock and the others line the tunnel with fuses. Just as they are ready to detonate, Cham appears and detains Lucky. As Cham proudly announces that he is being sent to Moscow, the phone rings and he learns of Lucky's betrayal. When he coldly informs her that the wires into the tunnel have been cut, thus thwarting the mission, Lucky pushes him off the balcony. She then darts into the tunnel and uses a primer to detonate the explosives, sacrificing herself. In the ensuing hail of gunfire, only Goldie, Caumont and Brock survive. They hijack a plane, taking off just as the entire mountain explodes, but when Caumont, who is piloting the aircraft, passes out and dies from his injuries, the plane careens out of control and crashes into the jungle. Unharmed, Brock and Goldie climb out of the plane. After collecting his wages, Brock claims his son and his puppy, taking the boy by the hand to begin the long journey to America. As they pass, Goldie sings the song "China Gate."
Nat "king" Cole
Lee Van Cleef
William Soo Hoo
Walter Soo Hoo
Gene Fowler Jr.
Harold E. Knox
William J. Magginetti
Beau Van Den Ecker
China Gate on DVD
But being put off by Fuller's smacked-face style means missing the brute power of his metaphors, the audacity of his dialogue with society, and the headlong beauty of his passion, which knew no mainstream bounds. "Taste" is not a quality you concern yourself with in Fullerland, because if you do, you miss the good stuff, including, from this former reporter and WWII-vet-with-a-camera, a knack for chomping on political pickles before anyone else in Hollywood even knew what was going on. Fuller's Korean War saga The Steel Helmet was released in 1951 less than four months after American troops crossed the 38th parallel (and years before the next film about that war), but that's nothing compared to China Gate (1957), the first American film about the Vietnam War, made when the territory was still "French Indochina," and released during the war's early French phase before the French had even lost and withdrawn. A long unavailable CinemaScope entry in the expansive Fuller canon, China Gate is decidedly anti-Communist - the opening dedication is "to the French." Fuller was no right-winger, just a gung-ho '50s patriot, and what might seem like a pro-colonialist position at first is, in typical Fuller fashion, muddied thoroughly by ambiguity, moral corruption, bigotry and the equalizing pressures of war itself. ("It's a follow-the-leader game," someone says deep into the film about war, "that grabs the imagination of every child. So you behave like children.")
Shot entirely in California, China Gate marks its historical moment in an unnamed war-torn city with a narrator intoning, "All the animals have been eaten." Then we glimpse a Vietnamese boy with a puppy hidden in his jacket. "All but one," says the narrator. Amid a flurry of real Vietnam-war footage - another first - Fuller's movie launches its tale, about hot Eurasian demimondaine/smuggler Lucky Legs (Angie Dickinson, with a dash of requisite Asian eye make-up) who longs to get her young son out of Asia and to America before it's too late, and so she strikes the deal when French forces enlist her to guide a group of covert multinational mercenaries through the jungle to blow-up a Vietcong arms depot. The head of the group, a racist American named Brock (a seething Gene Barry) presents a problem - he's Lucky's son's father, and the bitterness and miscegenous loathing is still thick in the air.
Fuller's war movies are uniquely dense with context - in China Gate the international characters all have nightmarish stories that reveal their nations' recent calamities, and whole knots of global history gets churned up just in the campfire dialogue. A cool and convincing Nat King Cole, at one point looking quite comfortable opening up with a machine gun, represents the cast's sole man of integrity, and so of course he has to fight the battle against prejudice all by himself. But only in a Fuller film would a Hungarian mercenary come close to a summary execution by a rabid American officer - for possibly divulging their position by sleepwalking in the jungle, which as apt a metaphor for the state of Communist Hungary as any in 1957. Eventually, the ersatz platoon reaches their mountainous destination, and Lucky uses her sexual wiles - implicitly for the umpteenth time, a despairing undercurrent of abuse and exploitation Fuller is not so delicate about - to woo Communist guerrilla Lee Van Cleef (who despite having narrow eyes doesn't scan as remotely Asian).
Fuller was also an inventive visualist, and there's not a dull shot in this bloodthirsty terrarium of a movie, which also benefits not necessarily from how adept Dickinson and Barry were as actors, but how fascinating they were as people - Dickinson with her uncorked and defiant sexuality, and Barry with his unrestrained sweaty menace. Fuller liked to key his films' various materials up into a manic riot, evoking a telling sense of social instability and chaos (while Hollywood's strategy otherwise was to do whatever it could to instill order and calm). China Gate, available on DVD for the first time from Olive Films, is vintage Fuller in this sense, a fuming, overwrought plunge into a sociopolitical morass no one else cared about at the time, and which was destined to only get far worse.
By Michael Atkinson
China Gate on DVD
The working title of this film was Gates of China. The film's onscreen title reads "Samuel Fuller's China Gate." Fuller's other credit appears onscreen as "Written Produced-Directed by Samuel Fuller." The picture opens with a voice-over narration describing the history of Vietnam, from the arrival of French missionaries to the Japanese invasion and the drive of Ho Chi Minh to make Vietnam an appendage of Chinese Communism. This narration is shown over actual documentary footage of the Indo-Chinese war, according to the Daily Variety review. French rule in Vietnam extended from the 19th century until World War II, when the country was invaded by Japan. At the war's end, the predominately Communist Viet Minh, which had led the resistance movement against the Japanese, declared the country's independence. The French, however, fought the new government in an effort to reestablish colonial rule. The French Indochina War then ensued, until France admitted defeat in 1954. As noted in modern sources, China Gate was notable because it dealt with American intervention in Vietnam before most Americans knew that the U.S. was aiding the French. Although January 1957 Hollywood Reporter news items place Judy Dann and Harold Fong in the cast, their appearance in the released film has not been confirmed. Another January 1957 Hollywood Reporter news item adds that exterior scenes were shot in Bronson Canyon, Los Angeles, CA.
Released in United States July 1991
Released in United States Spring May 1957
Released in United States Spring May 1957
Released in United States July 1991 (Shown in New York City (Film Forum: Sam Fuller Retrospective) July 28 & 29, 1991.)