He may not have the name recognition of an Alfred Hitchcock or a John Ford, but from his first film, 1949's I Shot Jesse James, to his final feature, Street of No Return, in 1989, Samuel Fuller has left an indelible mark on American motion pictures.
An eclectic filmmaker of uncompromising taste and style, Fuller worked in a variety of genres, including Westerns like 1957's Forty Guns, starring Barbara Stanwyck, and Run of the Arrow — a sort of "feminist" and pro-Indian Western respectively — to gangster pictures like Underworld U.S.A. in 1961. Along the way, there have also been the indefinable, cult favorites like Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964). But it is his war films that perhaps most explicitly carry the personality of their maker, and two of them, The Steel Helmet (1951) and Merrill's Marauders (1962), will be shown back-to-back May 27 as part of Turner Classic Movies' Memorial Day weekend line-up.
Fuller's real life was just as varied and fascinating as his films. Born in Massachusetts in 1912, Fuller would grow up on the mean streets of New York City. At just 17 years of age, he became a full-blooded newspaperman, working the crime beat and obtaining a gritty, hardened core that would stick with him for the rest of his life and would manifest itself in many of his films (Fuller's passion for the newspaper trade is touchingly on display in his 1952 love letter to the business, Park Row).
After that, Fuller began writing novels and screenplays and would go on to serve in World War II. In the Army, he was a corporal and combat reporter in the 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division, "The Big Red One." He saw action throughout his tour, including at Normandy, and he was part of a concentration camp liberation. In the end, he garnered the Bronze and Silver Star and the Purple Heart. When Fuller began making war films, rest assured, he knew what he was talking about, and this is plainly evident in the two films airing on TCM.
The Steel Helmet, just Fuller's third film, is about a group of soldiers during the Korean War. They are thrown together, not well suited to each other, and are seemingly in over their heads. Gene Evans stars as the grizzled protagonist, Zack. He's worn, weary, cynical and seasoned, and the film is as direct and earnest as he is. Fuller's abrasive dialogue, intensely realistic, is matched by his naturally direct camera work. There's an energy in his best films, a forcefulness that seems to have risen out of his journalistic philosophy and his war-time experiences, but, interestingly in contrast with this, there is a heightened poetic quality in some of the imagery; there's something almost surreal about the situation of these soldiers, holed up in a Buddhist temple as they are, and in the fighting that ensues. This being a Fuller film, made as the Korean War was just underway, the picture also contains undercurrents of sociocultural relevance, touching on everything from civil rights to communism.
Merrill's Marauders, made years later, and with considerably more funds at his disposal (The Steel Helmet cost a scant $100,000), is a notable testament to Fuller's visual flair. Fritz Lang famously said of CinemaScope, “It's only good for funerals and snakes," but Fuller, shooting here in the widescreen WarnerScope process, is clearly at home with the horizontal frame. The scope allows for a notable balance of the marching stream of men as they are enveloped in the dense environment. It also significantly illustrates the solidarity of the men, with many of them filling the frame during times of stasis and action. In this film, we're again with an assortment of soldiers, in a archetypal men-on-a-mission setup, but now the action is set during World War II, in the Burma jungle. Against the odds, Jeff Chandler, playing Brig. Gen. Frank D. Merrill, leads the downtrodden and exhausted group of soldiers on a perilous journey into enemy territory.
Fiercely independent, Fuller nevertheless worked competently within Hollywood's studio system during the peak of his productivity, mostly with B-grade budgets but still resulting in A-class movies; his relationship with Fox mogul Darryl Zanuck was often recalled favorably by the director, and their collaboration would yield what is arguably Fuller's finest picture, Pickup on South Street (1953).
But Fuller would approach the end of his career with not only one of his best films — and one of the best war films ever made — 1980's The Big Red One, starring Lee Marvin and based extensively on Fuller's own service, but one of the most unusual and controversial movies of all time, 1982's White Dog, about a dog trained to attack African Americans (!) and its subsequent rehabilitation process.
Sam Fuller was not, to say the least, widely heralded when he was actually making his classic films. He was known and respected (Fuller's personality demanded respect), but his filmmaking skill was not suitably lauded. It would take several forward thinking critics, as well as contemporary American filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese, to really put Fuller back on the cinematic map, to reevaluate his career, and to bring fresh attention to his work.
One of the foreign filmmakers who early on treasured Fuller's output was Jean Luc Godard. In Godard's 1965 French New Wave masterpiece Pierrot le Fou (incidentally, my favorite movie of all time) Fuller even has a cameo. In it, the director sums up what a film is to him. He states: "Film is like a battleground: It's love, hate, action, violence, death… in one word, emotions." To the benefit of movie lovers the world over, all of this and more is in every Sam Fuller film.