There had been Hollywood films set in Vietnam before, but Samuel Fuller's China Gate is arguably the first "Vietnam movie" to involve an American protagonist in the effort to prevent a Communist takeover of French Indochina. Fuller opens his picture with a prologue history of Indochina up to the Viet Minh uprising against French colonial rule, but he seems a little unclear on what Vietnam is. For one thing, he doesn't really use that name. For another, he writes as if the people of Indochina are "Chinese." On the other hand, China Gate takes an interesting attitude toward ethnicity in general. The Asian characters are written mostly in an entirely unstereotyped way, with none of the stilted conventions of Hollywood or pulp writing. The Viet Minh soldiers we see -- the time is early 1954, before the decisive siege of Dienbienphu -- talk and pretty much act like dogfaces anywhere: happy to see a dame, especially if she's brought alcohol. Meanwhile, singer Nat "King" Cole has a big supporting role as an American fighting with the French Foreign Legion, and his blackness is never remarked upon. His role probably wasn't written for a black actor, and strange to say, Cole's craggy features and raspy speaking voice arguably make his character, identified as a veteran of the "Big Red One" during World War II, even more of a surrogate for Fuller himself. The singer actually gives a credible performance as a tough soldier (he survives a booby-trap spike through his foot without crying out) marred only by a probably-obligatory performance of the rather bleak title song, and even that isn't inconsistent with Fuller's use of song in the same year's Forty Guns.
Where Fuller probably won't pass muster with many modern viewers is his casting of white actors in two crucial "half-caste" roles. Angie Dickinson gets the romantic lead playing Lia, a lithe lush better known as "Lucky Legs" or "Lucky" for short. Everyone remarks on how Lucky can pass for white, but her son is not so Lucky. Although the boy's no more than one-quarter Asian -- his father is American -- he looks so entirely Asian that the father, Sgt. Brock of the Legion (Gene Barry) freaks out and runs out on wife and child. That fact makes him a heel to everyone else in his unit, and it definitely complicates his mission to penetrate enemy lines to find the Communist weapons depot beyond the China Gate, with Lucky, a fixer who travels often between the lines, as their guide and shield.
Fuller quickly establishes his anti-communist credentials -- many of the Legionnaires are Korean War veterans who went to Vietnam so they could keep killing commies -- and that gives him cover from which he attacks his real target, American racism. By comparison, we never really encounter a dogmatic communist. As noted, the Viet Minh grunts we meet are simply grunts, no better or worse than other soldiers. When we get to the final boss, Major Cham, he's shown to be no more than an opportunist who had formerly hated communism, as Lucky notes in an embarrassing moment in front of Cham's masseuse, but now sees it as the wave of the future and his surest path to success. On the evidence of China Gate, communists are bad guys mainly by virtue of being more ruthless and indiscriminate, for some reason or other, in their violence.
It's probably for the best that Fuller didn't try to make any ideological statement when his main commie villain, the other half-caste in the story, is played by Lee Van Cleef. While the actor's name actually resembles a Vietnamese name, the resemblance pretty much ends there, which makes it unintentionally preposterous when Cham tells Lucky that he gets along better with the Reds because he looks more "Chinese" than she does. Cleef actually tries hard here to pull off a character who has actual feelings for Lucky, apparently his sometime lover, and for her son, whom he'd like to give a chance at advancement by getting him educated in Moscow. I have a feeling, however, that the naturalistic, non-stereotyped dialogue Fuller gave him made him even more damningly unconvincing as an Asian in the eyes of contemporary audiences, so that what actually looks now like a halfway decent performance probably looked like the worst in 1957.
By modern standards, given China Gate's anti-racist line, any ending that falls short of a happy ending for Lucky, Brock and their son probably will look like a cop-out. Does it undercut Fuller's message that Lucky sacrifices her life, after tossing Cham off a balcony, to blow up the ammo dump, even if the ending makes clear that Brock will take his Asiatic boy home with him after all? Some people are bound to think so, but let's remember that Fuller comes from an older tradition that values pathos and aims for bittersweet effects. If anything, you can argue that Lucky's death will only remind Brock even more of the wrong he did her earlier and the debt he owes their child. Tragedy was more commonplace in pop culture back then, especially when the one-and-done format of TV drama meant that heroes and heroines often loved and lost in a single hour. The same format also encouraged people to shrug off tragedy rather than wallow in it, and something like China Gate probably should be taken in the same spirit. It's not really a Fuller masterwork but it has a lot of interesting stuff going on, including the best performance I've ever seen from Gene Barry. The guilt trip he takes in this picture breaks down that typical smugness that makes his Bat Masterson so insufferable and suggests that he could have done more with his career if wanted to or was goaded into it. Cole also shows potential he got very little chance to develop further beyond his W. C. Handy biopic of the following year. I doubt anyone accepts Angie Dickinson as even partially Asian but she gives the right kind of charismatic performance for the familiar type of pulp heroine she plays. Overall China Gate is the typical "primitive" Fuller mix of impressive tracking shots, intense action, mostly decent art direction, badly integrated stock footage, etc. The film won't really tell you anything about Vietnam, but it's a diverting yarn on its own terms.