[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]
DeadPigeononBeethovenStreet is Sam Fuller’s Godard movie. The title is gradually pieced together (cf. Pierrotlefou), there is a scene in a movie theater where the hero grooves on hearing John Wayne in German in RioBravo (cf. Boetticher’s Westbound with an Apollinaire soundtrack in Àbout de souffle and Jack Palance’s orgiastic response to a cinematic bathing belle in the screening room of Le Mépris), there is a plethora of clique-y movie jokes (e.g., a one-scene appearance by Stéphane Audran as a certain Dr. Bogdanovich), and the director’s wife is featured in all her punishing ineptitude (there’s even a nearly subliminal flash of her playing a scene with Akim Tamiroff in Godard’s Alphaville). Besides these factors, none of which is exactly ignorable, the movie parodies its own narrative homeground to a fare-thee-well. After a bang-up opening in which a dead pigeon and a dead man and a wounded assassin named Charlie Umlaut all fall in Beethovenstrasse, in fist-in-the-kisser images slammed into a very jagged rhythm, Fuller gives us a shot of a pair of bare soles being wheeled down the corridor of a morgue. Looking above and beyond them (which is hard), we see Glenn Corbett and a West German cop and, of course, a morgue attendant; Corbett’s voice is droning on, in four lines piling up enough hyperchromatic exposition to occupy most films for a reel. Indeed, for a moment we can’t be sure whether Corbett is telling this to the German cop or doing a Spillane-style voiceover for our benefit.
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.
Invasion Europe (World War II Collections) (Warner, Blu-ray) True Stories of WWII (World War II Collections) (Warner, Blu-ray) The Big Red One (Warner, Blu-ray) Memphis Belle (1990) (Warner, Blu-ray)
Memorial Day is traditionally the occasion for studios to roll out their war movies again. This year, Warner upgraded a couple of titles to Blu-ray and then dropped them into new collections of vaguely curated box sets. Thematically speaking, Invasion Europe and True Stories of WWII are a little arbitrary, each a collection of three features on Blu-ray and a bonus DVD of non-fiction extras, but at least one set is defined by rip-roaring World War favorites.
Invasion Europe is anchored by Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One (1980), which was also newly released individually on Blu-ray earlier in May. Fuller’s semi-autobiographical story of one American rifle squad’s tour of duty from North Africa through D-Day stars Robert Carradine (standing in for the cigar chomping, pulp-fiction writing Fuller), Mark Hamill, Bobby Di Cicco, and Kelly Ward as the green recruits who become hardened survivors under the gruff tutelage of Lee Marvin’s tough, taciturn Sergeant. We never learn his name – this World War I retread is simply Sarge and Sarge teaches these raw recruits that in war you don’t murder, you kill. The only glory in war is surviving, in Fuller’s clear-eyed portrait of combat, and this quartet of survivors become Sarge’s “Four Horsemen,” the eternal figures in a rifle squad filled out by a couple of hundred replacements whose names they finally give up trying to learn.
“This is a fictional life based on factual death,” begins the film. We land in North Africa for a trial under fire, scramble through the mountain villages of Italy, and charge Omaha Beach on D-Day, all on a fraction of the budget and a sliver of the cast that Steven Spielberg had at his disposal for “Saving Private Ryan.”
The Big Red One has the scope of an epic sculpted with a spare, suggestive visual style. Isolated, deserted locales dominate their odyssey. Death is abrupt and brutal, ready to strike at any moment. It verges on the unreal, and these boys learn to respond instinctively to the unreality of it all. A World War II vet himself, Marvin’s face is a road map of the war, the worn, battered, yet unusually calm and warm face of a survivor. His heart is hidden under a helmet and three day stubble, but the weary serenity behind his eyes can turn warm and protective when the children of liberated villages follow Sarge around like puppies and he wordlessly adopts them for a few heartbreaking moments.
The version that Fuller released in 1980 was not the version he intended. In 2004, film historian, critic, and documentary filmmaker Richard Schickel uncover hours of footage and, using Fuller’s original script as a guide, embarked on a reconstruction. The result is not quite the mythic 4 hour rough cut Fuller bragged about (which may not have ever existed), but it’s the closest we’re likely to get to Fuller’s intentions. It fills out Sam Fuller’s “compromised” 1980 war drama with over 45 minutes of new and expanded scenes that restore characters lost in the cutting, fill out experiences, and give the film a shape completely missing in the original cut. Both versions are included here, but the longer reconstructed version is not HD: it’s encoded at 480i, basically the same as a DVD.
Also features the supplements from the earlier DVD release, notably commentary by Schickel and a 48-minute documentary that features the surviving actors and provides a detailed look at the inspiration for the reconstruction, the process of searching for and restoring missing scenes, and the technical tools used in the reconstruction. Further discoveries not included in the reconstruction are included in a gallery of deleted scene, and comparisons of original and newly restored extended scenes are provided with commentary by reconstruction editor Bryan McKenzie and post-production supervisor Brian Hamblin. Archival materials include a Fuller-produced 30 minute promo reel and Richard Schickel’s 1973 documentary The Men Who Made the Movies: Samuel Fuller.
I’ve been waiting quite literally for decades for a widescreen release of Sam Fuller’s China Gate (Olive) on home video. Long overdue on disc, it has never been made available widescreen on video of any kind, relegated to pan-and-scan on the long out-of-print VHS release and on every TV or cable showing I’ve ever found. And I’ve been looking for a long time. Olive Films, working with Paramount, has finally offered the complete film on home video.
Set in the early years of the Vietnam War (when it was still called Indochina) with a multinational platoon of French, American, and German career soldiers, it’s classic Fuller pulp storytelling. Angie Dickinson gets a memorable introduction — all long legs stretched out over a bombed-out saloon in the rubble of a Vietnamese village — and an even better character as Lucky Legs. She’s the daughter of an American soldier and a Vietnamese mother and the mother of an adorable boy who received all the Asian characteristics that skipped over her. Don’t fret that she doesn’t look Asian, because that’s essential to the story: her G.I. husband, the gruff Sgt. Brock (Gene Barry), fell in love with a woman who looked American but his bigotry reared up when he took one look at his newborn son and he walked out on wife and child both.
That makes for a volatile situation when the estranged couple teams up for a mission to blow up a North Vietnamese munitions dump, using her booze smuggling operation as cover for their mission. He’s doing it for duty, she’s doing it for an American passport for her son.
Nat ‘King’ Cole co-stars as a fellow American soldier disgusted by Barry’s racist rejection of his son — he’s not much of an actor but he creates a strong impression on screen (watch him bite back a scream when he steps on a punji stick) and sings the film’s melancholy theme song — and Lee Van Cleef is Dickinson’s Vietnamese cousin, a true red communist commander who wants Lucky to move north and join his side.
Fuller was a real American maverick who wrapped politics and social commentary into his punchy, two-fisted stories, working within the Hollywood culture when it suited his projects and outside the studio system as his style and subject matter evolved. His patriotism made him both a prime cinematic cold warrior and one of the most perceptive and insistent critics of racism. China Gate is filled with both anti-communist rhetoric and an anti-racism message, all in a platoon mission drama shot in California forests and studio sets standing in for the Vietnam jungle.
A year after its landmark release of Budd Boetticher’s “Ranown” Westerns, Sony showcases another great maverick filmmaker. Samuel Fuller spent most of his career in B pictures, creating ultrapersonal, formula-defying films that got little notice from workaday reviewers but impressed sharp critics like Andrew Sarris and Manny Farber. His streetwise worldview, his voice, his advisedly jarring style were so distinctive that when American film criticism underwent a major shakeup in the 1960s, Fuller was singled out as an exemplary “auteur.” The French New Wave revered him and he became an inspiration to later generations of American independents. (Martin Scorsese once invited him to come see “my new movie,” but what hit the screen was Scorsese’s print of Fuller’s Run of the Arrow.)
Fuller was a writer long before he added directing to his résumé: New York City crime reporter, at age seventeen, in the Twenties; pulp novelist (Test Tube Baby?); and a screenwriter at Columbia by the late Thirties. So it’s fine that The Samuel Fuller Collection, almost uniquely among filmmaker box sets, should include some movies directed by others but based on Fuller scripts or stories; there are five of them, along with two all-Fuller productions. His early film involvements were minor. He was one of four writers on It Happened in Hollywood (1937), the tale of a Tom Mix–like Western star whose career flames out when takies arrive. There’s droll business as the hero (Richard Dix) and his longtime leading lady (Fay Wray) attempt the transition from buckskin and gingham to tuxedo, gown, and drawing-room dialogue, and one party scene features a raft of star cameos—actually, star-lookalike cameos. Adventure in Sahara (1938) started life when omnivorous reader Fuller, invited to make a pitch to a Columbia exec, improvised on the spot: “William Bligh meets Victor Hugo!” The whiplash-inducing melodrama that resulted has Paul Kelly joining the Foreign Legion to avenge his kid brother’s death, caused by the sadistic commandant (C. Henry Gordon) of Fort Agadez, “the Inferno of the Sahara.” So there’s our Captain Bligh, ripe for mutiny; the Victor Hugo part, a variation on a chapter in Hugo’s ’Ninety-Three, comes when Kelly and his fellow mutineers decide to … well, the cockamamie picture’s just 56 minutes long—see for yourself.
[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 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, ColoradoTerritory‘s forbidding geography to the contours of real and potential space that encompasses a quest in RunoftheArrow), 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.
[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 Helmetis 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.
[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]
“I wanted the camera to tilt slightly in one direction and the picture to tilt in another. So when it evens out, we have death. I wanted something weird in the beginning, but when it’s over, dead men are usually horizontal, and everything is simple, on one line.”
-Sam Fuller, discussing the murder scene in I Shot Jesse James
Sam Fuller does not really seem too preoccupied with the Jesse James story as Western myth. In all of his movies he is too busy delving into the dark corners of human nature to indulge in the more abstract enterprise of mythmaking (or its iconoclastic obverse in films like The Ballad of Cable Hogue and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) à la John Ford, Leone, or Peckinpah. I Shot Jesse James, Fuller’s first film as a director, does partake of mythic qualities, but primarily as they arise in conjunction with the psychological dissolution and imminent mortality of Robert Ford (John Ireland), emphatically the man who shot Jesse James. The term “psychological Western”—rife with Freudian undertones—seems a dangerous description, an oversimplification of Fuller’s complexly human drama; Fuller’s people are people rather than symbols. He gets at their humanness through an intensely subjective narrative, emphasizing, through an environment of airless closeups, the interior space of Bob Ford’s informing consciousness. In the process, Jesse James, the legendary outlaw, is not only de-romanticized (Reed Hadley’s abbreviated appearance as Jesse definitely makes it hard to sympathize with him)—he gets pretty much ignored. The angst of a confused man who would shoot his best friend to gain amnesty for himself is much more compelling subject matter for Fuller. The title of the film itself is a sign of this agonizing subjectivity, suggesting both confession and advertisement, the ordinate axes of guilt and potency that delineate the planes of Robert Ford’s inner struggle.
Fuller has said that he modeled the shooting scene after a version of the legendary betrayal that most people were familiar with from pictures showing Jesse straightening a picture on the wall while Ford calmly plugs him in the back. That image becomes the core of the movie, but in an interesting and unexpected way that allows Fuller to create a delicate interplay between myth and artistic creation by introducing Kane (J. Edward Bromberg), a travelling impresario who stages “heartwarming dramas” with Cynthy (Barbara Britton), Ford’s girlfriend, as his leading lady. Fairly early in the film there is a brilliantly economical and. subtly motivated scene in which Robert Ford and Mr. Kane are in Cynthy’s dressing room playing a simple game of cards for a quarter a hand. As Ford talks on and on about legendary figures like the Dalton gang and some other Western gunslingers, Kane loses hand after hand. Finally we see Kane draw an ace of spades; he glances at Ford and says, “Four.” Ford has a nine. He picks up another two bits and tells Kane that it looks like a real streak of bad luck. Kane agrees and asks if he can see that .45 now—the .45 that killed Jesse James. As he fondles it, he says, “You know, that gun’ll probably go into a museum one day.” “Not while I’m alive to tote it,” Ford replies. While the allusions to Ford’s growing mythic status accumulate (his invoking the Daltons gives us a context of legend from which to view Ford’s ascension to that very same plane of reputed existence), the actual business of the scene—hidden somewhere behind Kane’s dissembling face when he drew the ace and called out a four—still brews unseen, until Cynthy walks in, Kane goes out, and Ford tells her that Kane is going to make him a “special added attraction” in the show. Each night, he will play out onstage the way he murdered Jesse.
[Originally published in Movietone News 50, June 1976]
Sam Fuller: “You can always tell about a leaper by the distance his toes are from the edge of either the window or the ledge of the roof he’s threatening to jump from. If you’re covering it, watch those toes. If they stick out, he’s not a fraud, he’s going, and he’s going fast. They usually make a silly speech.
“See that still of a girl in the picture of me at the typewriter? The suicide? I had collected a lot of suicide notes. When you cover a story, you ask the coroner, ‘Can I have the note?’ Ironically, 90 percent of the notes end with: ‘God forgive me.’ No matter what the hell they are, they always say that: that’s really right before they’re going to die. It’s a fear complex. They have no one to turn to, so they turn to the only commodity sold to them and forced down their goddam young throats—’God.’ It’s silly.
“So I decided I’d write a book called God Forgive Me—God Forgive Me, and write about all these characters, and also reprint their notes in the book. I left the notes with my mother and went to Frisco. By God, she lost them. She was very panicky about it, it was just a terrible thing. It was my fault, I kept them all in a paper bag. The best note I had was this girl who killed herself. She wrote it with an eyebrow pencil on a small paper bag. ‘This is my Independence Day. Here is the way I am celebrating it. God forgive me.’
“My mother said, ‘How can you even hold on to these?’ It depressed her. Every one of those little pieces of paper. One of them: three old maids, sisters, between 70 and 85 years old; they were panhandlers, beggars, they worked the subway entrances for money. Then they decided they had nothing to live for. They had eight or ten cents when the cop found them. They pooled their money and bought nightgowns and stuffed all the goddam cracks and gassed themselves to death. And that’s when my mother said, ‘I don’t want to see any more of these notes, they’re horrible, they’re horrible. In your story you said you found out from the landlord that they had nothing to live for. Well, a lot of people have nothing to live for. Why did they kill themselves?’
“And I said, ‘You oughtta be on the night desk instead of my editor, because he never asked me that.’ She said, ‘I don’t understand this. We know a lot of people who said, “Oh, it’s terrible going on, this existence,” so why didn’t they kill themselves? You didn’t get the story.’ And she was right. And I said, ‘How the hell am I going to get it from three old, OLD maids’—that was my lead, by the way: ‘Three old, old maids joined the young in heaven yesterday.’ My night editor liked that very much.”
Q: What strikes me is not so much that they killed themselves but that they were so organized as to do it together.
SF: “And also in new nightgowns. I wrote that up beautifully: ‘They came in clean and they wanted a clean exit.’ I really went to town on it. The only thing I didn’t like was my mother’s comment.”
Q: There’s nothing worse than a critic who’s right.
SF: “And especially when in my heart the landlord’s statement, that they had nothing to live for, was ridiculous. If they were panhandlers, certainly they had nothing to live for. And my mother brought that home very, very strongly.”
Q: So for you the question was, What did they have to die for?
SF: “They had one thing to die for: Escape. Relief.”
Q: Why did they wait so long?
SF: “I don’t know. They were virgins according to the coroner. That’s pretty unusual for that age. So that means they were three nutty old maids.”
Fuller was 12 when his father died and he moved with his mother and brothers to New York City from Worcester, Mass. There he continued his vocation: newsboy. “My mother did nothing-she was a mother.” His brothers—one an excellent cartoonist—are now dead.