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Neyle Morrow

‘Run of the Arrow’: Birth Pangs of the United States

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

As with many of Fuller’s films, Run of the Arrow is finally about nothing less that the United States, even though it is “just” a Western. As a matter of fact, it is perhaps the most conventionally “Western” of Fuller’s Westerns, the only one that really utilizes the redrock and sagebrush landscapes that one associates with the West of directors like Mann, Ford, and Walsh (compare, for instance, Colorado Territory‘s forbidding geography to the contours of real and potential space that encompasses a quest in Run of the Arrow), and the only one that is in color—vivid color, bright with eye-catching primary hues that become motifs on the political and historical canvas of Fuller’s story. Blood is red, and so are the stripes of the American Flag that O’Meara (Rod Steiger), a bitter Confederate soldier who leaves his home after the war. and seeks out a viable identity as a Sioux Indian, initially rejects and later accepts as his. The uniforms and wagons of the cavalry are blue, and so are the feathers on the lance of Blue Buffalo (Charles Bronson), the Sioux chief whose tribe defeats that band of cavalry; so, for that matter, are the blueprints for a new fort to go up in the middle of the Sioux nation most definitely blue, creating an analogy between plans for this specific outpost and the manifest destiny blueprinted in the more encompassing vision of an America moving ever westward.

The film’s themes, which intertwine, support and counterpoint each other, operate on this dual level of significance; the personal crises of identity and the more far-reaching problems of national unity are the components of Fuller’s vision, a cumulatively dark picture of the forces that drove men west to expand the boundaries of their country. The story itself has a sinister way of revolving in ever tightening circles around the antagonism between O’Meara and Driscoll (Ralph Meeker), the Yankee officer whom O’Meara wounds with the last bullet fired in the Civil War. They meet up again out West, Driscoll as the leader of a detachment of cavalry commissioned to guard some Army engineers who intend to build a fort in Sioux territory, O’Meara as a scout for the Indians. A parallel conflict springs up between Driscoll and Captain Clark (Brian Keith), the latter a stabilizing force in a world that balances the self-hating O’Mearas against the vicious opportunists like Driscoll. Clark’s strength becomes the most reliable core of value in the film, shoring up the foundations of a reasonable patriotism that will endure beyond both the reactionary ethics of the old Sioux scout Walking Coyote (“I don’t know what this world’s coming to,” he says as a party of young bucks get drunk and prepare to string him up) and Driscoll’s incipient fascism. Clark’s spiel to O’Meara questioning O’Meara’s rejection of home and flag and ending with the parable of Philip Knowland, the man without a country (done all in one breathless take, the only movement being an honest and unashamed nudge to a slightly closer shot when the legend of Knowland is invoked) is eloquent enough to rise high above the platform jingoism of a flag-waving patriot, and is indeed infused with an almost Fordian sense of privileged participation. It counterpoints the more patly violent and potently chaotic aspects of Fuller’s films, offering us an openness and resilience that seems as essentially Fullerian as his attention-grabbing visual style and volatile worldview.

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The Steel Helmet: “I’ve got a hunch we’re all going around in circles”

[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]

There are two kind of people in The Steel Helmet: those who are dead and those who are about to be; men who have ceased to move anywhere and mean anything, and those whose idiosyncratic, even crazy energy keeps them in motion until they too are stopped by an arbitrary bullet or knife. Dead men are just corpses, places where you can shop for extra sulfa powder, guns, helmets and boots, or get blown up by a booby trap. The Steel Helmet is dedicated to the United States Infantry, but this branch of the military has little of the look of a recruiting poster once it’s been refracted through the very particularized and peculiar directorial lenses of Samuel Fuller. A stranger to Fuller might echo the gum-chewing officer who disbelievingly confronts the film’s survivors—bald, black, yellow, and crazy—with “What kind of outfit is this?” The outfit is mankind and the Korean police action just another chapter in a story, a battleground that has no end, that is existence itself.

A steel helmet marked by a bullethole fills the screen during the film’s credit sequence. That helmer is like a slowmotion stone dropped into the pool of our perception; for the image expands in ever widening circles until it has eroded our literal vision away like a series of figurative dissolves, and that pierced hemisphere becomes a metal microcosm, the world itself, the world under fire. When the helmet is seen to be inhabited, when Sgt. Zack’s (Gene Evans’) eyes appear warily beneath it, the world shrinks to the confines of the fragile circle of a human skull. Not much later in the film, another soldier hits the dirt, jarring off his helmet to reveal the almost obscenely vulnerable nakedness of a hairless head. Here, baldness against earth evokes man’s fate as food for worms. In The Naked Kiss, the denuded pate of a prostitute possesses a perverse sexual allure. In both cases, the loss of that taken-for-granted covering and protection spells a primal vulnerability which both attracts and repulses. That the bald soldier’s head should be massaged with dirt to make his hair grow back completes some dark cycle in The Steel Helmet. When Baldy (Richard Monahan) is assured that “things will be sprouting in no time,” he has every right to querulously inquire, “What things?” Zack barks “Eat rice!” at his South Korean protégé whenever the enemy is encountered. The black medic, Thompson (James Edwards), reports that his officer is “fertilizing a rice paddy with the others,” and Sgt. Zack sloppily crams melon into his mouth as he advises his less cynical lieutenant (Steve Brodie) to stop worrying about a dead American’s dogtags: “A dead man’s nothing but a corpse. Nobody cares who he is now.” Three shellshocked soldiers sprawl against and around a pillar surrounded by the bodies of their entire patrol: “I’m hungry.” “Me, too.” “First we’ll eat, then we’ll bury them.” Rice is nourishment for the living, but in this violently topsy-turvy environment, eating rice means hitting the dirt, avoiding the grave by playing dead. Rice gets fertilized by the truly dead, but the rich earth will make Baldy’s hirsute helmet grow again. Men who are still on their feet eat to keep putting one foot in front of the other, so that they don’t get pinned down, immobilized, dead. Once dead, burial must wait for the living to take sustenance. Man eats so that he has the energy to run toward whatever death is waiting for him. Then he becomes food for other men on the run. A profoundly pessimistic vision? Perhaps. But the momentum and eccentric style of man’s run, his sheer bullheaded energy and endurance equally fascinate Fuller.

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