Nostalgia can only get you so far, even when wookiees are involved. While 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens succeeded in its designated task of rescuing the venerable franchise from the doldrums of its prequels, it also practiced a frustrating form of risk aversion, putting the next generation of characters through some very familiar paces. (Now coming up on your left: another Death Star!) Thankfully, The Force Awakens’ thunderously hyped sequel, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, takes a much more proactive tack, fully honoring the touchstones of the series while zigging and zagging in satisfying, provocative ways. If the previous entry presented a respectably staid melding of old and new, this one wires everything up, cranks the juice, and lets her rip. It’s escapism on a grand scale—the kind of experience that reminds you why you fell in love with movies in the first place. Believe the hype, and then some.
Director, writer, pulp fiction author, raconteur and all-around maverick character Samuel Fuller was as proud of his military service as any of his artistic accomplishments. Like hundreds of thousands of other Americans, he enlisted in the armed services after Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese. He joined the infantry and, as a rifleman in the First United States Infantry Division (aka “the Big Red One”), he participated in the Allied assault on North Africa in 1942, fought his way through Sicily, landed in the first wave on Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion of Normandy, took part in the liberation of France and Belgium, and marched into Germany, where his squad helped liberate the Falkenau Concentration Camp. “I began a journal in North Africa,” he shared in his autobiography, A Third Face. “If I survived, I was going to write about my war experiences.” His experiences informed The Steel Helmet and numerous other war films but it was forty years before he put his own story down, first in the novel The Big Red One, published in 1980, and then in the film that came out the same year, in a compromised form that was partially restored in 2004.
The Big Red One is Fuller’s most autobiographical film, at once an old-fashioned war thriller and a portrait of the insanity and senseless destruction of combat, and the most expensive and ambitious production of his career. It charts the journey of his own real life unit (1st Infantry, 1st Platoon) through the experiences of four riflemen. Robert Carradine, Mark Hamill, Bobby Di Cicco, and Kelly Ward play the “four horsemen,” as their tough, taciturn Sergeant (Lee Marvin) names them, the eternal figures in a rifle squad filled out by a couple of hundred replacements whose names they finally give up trying to learn over the four years of combat. The rest are simply “dead men with temporary use of their arms and legs,” explains one of the riflemen, and in Fuller’s clear-eyed portrait of combat, the only glory in war is survival.
[originally published in Steadycam, February 13, 2005; an earlier version of this article was published late 2004 in Queen Anne & Magnolia News]
Samuel Fuller—whose credit on his movies always read
PRODUCER • DIRECTOR
with WRITER on top like that—came to Seattle in May 1976 for a special appearance with two of his movies under the aegis of the Seattle Film Society. He came to enjoy himself, to meet some nice people, to eat some of that Northwest salmon a film-historian friend back in L.A. had urged him to order. And he would talk, not only between the two films in a UW auditorium but also during the five hours between landing at SeaTac Airport and showing up for the gig. And from 10-something the next morning till 11-something the next night, while relays of much younger listeners basked, then collapsed and disappeared as replacements showed up.
He also brought his work along with him, in the form of a stack of paper and a tall, klunky manual typewriter that looked as if it might have come out of one of the newsrooms where he had pounded out stories nearly half a century earlier as a tabloid reporter in New York. He was writing his novel The Big Red One, part of the process of getting to make a movie about what it was like to serve in the 1st Infantry Division, United States Army, from the beginning of America’s participation in World War II to the end—which is to say, from North Africa through Sicily, France, Belgium, again France, and finally to Germany and Czechoslovakia. He had been waiting for the chance to make that movie since sometime in the Sixties (but really, perhaps, since 1945). In 1976, it looked as if it was about to happen, since the critic turned filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich was throwing his own (short-lived) clout into lining up a production deal for Fuller. As it turned out, three more years would pass before he got the go.
[Originally published in Movietone News 55, September 1977]
Relevance has always been the great bugaboo of science fiction film. Among film genres, sf (“sci-fi” is a flippancy coined during the Fifties by people who took the genre less than seriously; those who know and love science fiction call it sf) has been a distinctly poor relation for the last several decades, sharing with hardcore pornography the obligation to have redeeming social value in order to be acceptable. Even when Westerns, swashbucklers, historical epics, war films, romances and those most improbable of fantasies, musicals, were allowed to justify themselves for entertainment’s sake, or for the sake of a well-crafted work, meaning and social relevance aside, the sf film had to teach a lesson if it was not to fall under suspicion of rotting young minds. It’s as if all those scientists existed to show us that we must not meddle in things man was not meant to know, and all those monsters and invaders came to teach us that we must use science wisely, or that we must trust in God, or in love, or in each other, or remain eternally vigilant against those who would destroy us from within.
The extent to which George Lucas’s Star Wars liberates an entire film genre from this stigma is signaled by the film’s tagline, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” It’s a way of saying that this film has nothing whatsoever to do with human life on earth, now or in the future. In making that clear, Lucas sets his film apart from every other science fiction film. But in setting aside the sf film tradition until now, and returning (might one call it “pre–Flash Gordonism”?) to the aboriginal wellsprings of mythic art, above the watershed where social relevance diverges from the course of pure fantasy (many call it “escapism”), Lucas nevertheless has had to acknowledge the influence of several generations of motion picture genres and styles on his new adventurism. If Star Wars celebrates its own freedom from the generic restrictions of Metropolis, Things to Come, The Thing, This Island Earth, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, it also commits itself to the tradition of Tarzan, Tom Mix, Douglas Fairbanks, James Bond. Lucas uses opticals that place us squarely in the world of the Republic serials; and an analysis of the structure of Star Wars reveals a seemingly insoluble crisis about every ten or twelve minutes, with appropriate combat scenes in between (it would be interesting to see how easily commercial breaks could be spaced into Star Wars for a TV run). The message, if there is one, is nothing more than that adventure is fun; exhilaration of the human spirit is enough to justify a work of entertainment or of art.
[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]
Trying to flag down a notion of just how “pure cinema”—Hitchcock’s term—works is tricky. The implication is that there is a level on which film operates which is undetectable by those who are unwilling or untrained. Sounds kinda elitist, I’m sure, but this is probably why many people miss the glories of Halloween and The American Friend to settle for the satisfying conventionality of Brubaker‘s good intentions. All that’s really necessary for appreciating “pure cinema” is a pair of open eyes: when a filmmaker is fluent enough with the language of the cinema, then the bodies, images, sounds will accumulate, interweave, and a lasting impression will be registered through those open, willing eyes. To watch Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac or Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain is to feel utterly in the hands of a master: every color, aperture, strand of dialogue, camera movement can be apprehended to be part of the bigger fabric of the movie, each cinematic event reflecting on another. Bresson’s Pickpocket is an example of pure cinema which employs a series of dispassionate images that, piled on top of each other as they have been by the end of the film, produce a startlingly moving fadeout.