Sam Fuller Centennial

12 Aug

Sam Fuller would have turned 100 today, August 12, 2012. In a movie career that lasted 60 years, he had 30 directorial credits (per IMDB) and 51 screenplay/story credits. Fuller interrupted his Hollywood career to serve as an infantryman in World War II and fought in North Africa, Sicily, D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge, before liberating a death camp in Czechoslovakia. An ex-reporter, he chose the army because he wanted to go where the story was. He certainly found it. I wrote about Fuller’s WWII film THE BIG RED ONE (1980) here on February 20, 2012.

When I started as a film student some forty years ago, I fell under the spell of the auteur theory and gravitated to directors whom the auteurists loved (Hawks, Ford, Hitchcock, Anthony Mann, Nicholas Ray, Budd Boetticher, etc.). Fuller immediately stood out because he was in fact the genuine author of his movies. He wrote, produced and directed nearly all of them. I forget how I first heard of Fuller, but in those days the only way to be introduced to someone’s work was if their films played in theaters or showed up on broadcast television. I would look through the TV movie listings for the week and determine what I wanted to see and if it came on when I could watch it. My first Fuller film was THE STEEL HELMET (1951), and I watched it when it came on at 4:00 AM on the Late Late Show on WCBS-TV. In the pre-cable, pre-VCR, pre-DVR era, I had to go to bed early (10PM) and set the alarm for just before 4AM, so I could get up, go into the living room and watch it, with the sound low so as not to disturb sleeping siblings in the next room. I took notes during the commercials.

The film was about a group of scattered American soldiers during the Korean War who are lost behind enemy lines and band together for safety. They manage to capture a North Korean major (Harold Fong) and occupy an abandoned Buddhist temple in order to set up an observation post. It was shot on a low budget on cramped studio sets and locations in Griffith Park, just a stone’s throw from downtown L.A. The film is noteworthy for the sheer range of eccentric characters contained in its cast and the diversity of social issues raised in its interactions. The North Korean prisoner tries to play upon potential divisions in the group, reminding the black medic, Thompson (James Edwards), of segregation back home, and the Nisei WWII vet Tanaka (Richard Loo) of the fact that his fellow Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps during the war. The main character, Sergeant Zack (Gene Evans), another WWII “retread,” is just a soldier through and through who wants to fight and survive and couldn’t care less about other people’s problems (and there are quite a few of them). An orphaned Korean boy nicknamed Short Round (William Chun) latches onto Zack who takes him under his wing, but with great reluctance. The film ends with the text, “There is no end to this story.”  The film came out while the war was still raging and proved a very big hit relative to its budget.

I hadn’t expected a low-budget Korean War movie that went under the radar of mainstream Hollywood to be so full of ideas and substance. And it offered a harsh, unflinching view of combat. It wasn’t glamorous, exciting or adventurous—it was dangerous, debilitating, shocking and wearying, just as Fuller had experienced it in his period as an infantryman. I was not at all surprised to eventually learn that Fuller got no cooperation from the Department of Defense during the production and was even questioned by J. Edgar Hoover about the film’s “subversive” content.

In short order, thanks to TV broadcasts and revival theater screenings in Manhattan, I was able to see all of Fuller’s Hollywood studio films, from I SHOT JESSE JAMES (1949) to THE NAKED KISS (1964), mostly in theaters, over the next three or four years. I even caught a film he directed in Germany, DEAD PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET (1973). Fuller’s best films from his studio period all had a punchy tabloid style, befitting an ex-tabloid crime reporter, with exaggerated emotions and sharp bursts of unexpected action and characters expressing themselves bluntly to each other. Fuller had points to make and he had his characters make them, but I don’t believe he ever got preachy. He and his actors somehow made their exclamations believable. And you always knew when you were watching a Fuller film. No one else made films quite like his.

I was especially taken with his treatment of racial issues. CHINA GATE (1957) featured an American protagonist, Sergeant Brock (Gene Barry), a mercenary in French IndoChina, who invites the audience’s antipathy when he rejects his part-Asian son because he looks too Asian. The boy’s Eurasian mother (Angie Dickinson) agrees to help Brock on a secret mission if only he can guarantee that she and their son are allowed to resettle in America and make a fresh start. Brock reluctantly agrees but is looked on with contempt by his fellow mercenaries who include an Asian (James Hong) and a black soldier (Nat King Cole). RUN OF THE ARROW (1957) offers an Irishman hero who fights for the Confederacy and rejects the peace, opting to head out west where he becomes a member of a Sioux tribe (whose chief is played by Charles Bronson!) and winds up working as an Indian scout for the U.S. army, where a sympathetic officer assures him that the Civil War did not spell “the death of the south, but the birth of the United States.” The film ends with the text, “The end of this story can only be written by you.”

HOUSE OF BAMBOO (1955) was shot in Japan and deals with American ex-servicemen who stayed on and formed a military-style criminal gang. An American officer, working undercover, joins the gang to get the goods on them and winds up living with a Japanese woman, played by Japanese actress Shirley Yamaguchi, whose interesting history would have made a great film itself. She’d had a film career in China, under a Chinese name, during Japan’s occupation of China, where she made propaganda films for Japan. When the war was over she was almost executed as a collaborator until it was revealed that she was actually Japanese. THE CRIMSON KIMONO (1959) was about a love triangle involving a white woman and two Los Angeles cops, one white, one Japanese-American. In an interesting twist, the woman winds up choosing the Japanese cop (played by James Shigeta) over the white cop (played by Glenn Corbett).

SHOCK CORRIDOR (1963), set in a mental institution, features a black inmate (Hari Rhodes) who’d been one of the first students to integrate a southern college, but who has since snapped under the pressure of it all and adopted the identity of a Ku Klux Klan member opposing integration.

Later in his career, during one of his “comeback” periods, Fuller managed to get Paramount to back him on a film called WHITE DOG (1982), in which Paul Winfield stars as a black dog trainer who takes on the task of re-training a dog who’d been trained to attack black people. Paramount dumped the film after a few test screenings and I had to wait several years to see it at a repertory theater.

Fuller’s record on racially appropriate casting is somewhat mixed. I give him credit for featuring actual Japanese stars like Shirley Yamaguchi and Sessue Hayakawa in HOUSE OF BAMBOO, but then he casts himself as a Japanese policeman! He cast James Shigeta in a leading role (THE CRIMSON KIMONO) and James Hong in an important supporting role (CHINA GATE) but then he cast Angie Dickinson and Lee Van Cleef as Asians in CHINA GATE! He cast Mexican actress Sarita Montiel as Rod Steiger’s Sioux bride in RUN OF THE ARROW, but in the same film he cast Charles Bronson and Jay C. Flippen as Indians, and then had Angie Dickinson dub Montiel’s voice.

Questions of national identity and loyalty are raised in many of these films. In THE BARON OF ARIZONA (1950), an American con man (Vincent Price) tries to cheat his own country out of a tract of land in Arizona, claiming it was ceded to him in an old Spanish land grant. In THE STEEL HELMET, the aforementioned North Korean general tries to turn the Nisei and Black soldiers against their country. In PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, a pickpocket (Richard Widmark) gets caught in the middle of a spy case involving national security and has to make a choice between his own self-interest and that of his country. In CHINA GATE, Angie Dickinson’s character has to choose a future for her son based on his conflicting heritages, while Brock, the boy’s father, also has to choose whether to remain a mercenary, killing for hire in foreign wars, or reclaim his own American heritage and take his son back home.

In RUN OF THE ARROW, O’Meara (Rod Steiger), the Irish Confederate-turned-Sioux is mightily confused about his national identity and has to ultimately make a choice about whether to self-identify as an American. VERBOTEN (1958) deals with Germans caught between postwar reconstruction of their country and unrepentant young Nazis seeking to continue the war.

In “Samuel Fuller,” Nicholas Garnham addresses what America means to Fuller’s protagonists:

“The message of his movies is that America can become the father and mother of us all, not by pretending to unity but by accepting its own heterogeneous nature, all its conflicts and confusions. That would seem to be the only dream of America worth pursuing.”

Sullivan 3

While Fuller’s western, FORTY GUNS (1957), wasn’t about race or national identity, it dealt with issues of power, corruption and law, with a righteous marshal taking on a powerful landowner, a woman used to doing things the way she wants. The fact that the two of them, played by Barry Sullivan and Barbara Stanwyck, fall in love with each other only adds to the complication. There’s a rather shocking bit of business at the end where Stanwyck is being used as a shield by her wayward brother (John Ericson), who’d killed Sullivan’s brother (Gene Barry) on his wedding day, and Sullivan shoots Stanwyck so he can get at Ericson. This was a reaction to a similar scene in HIGH NOON, which Fuller disdained. Fuller wanted to end it with Sullivan walking away from the dead body of the woman he loved, but the studio made him change it to have Stanwyck survive. Fuller went on to deal with issues of power and corruption in UNDERWORLD U.S.A and THE NAKED KISS.

Fuller made a number of great war movies. I think THE BIG RED ONE is the best, for reasons outlined in my February 20 entry, but I’m also a big fan of MERRILL’S MARAUDERS (1962), which was shot in the Philippines and is based on a true account of combat with the Japanese by the title unit in Burma. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a war movie that captures so well the extent of the exhaustion these men felt in the course of their mission. My only complaint is that some of the younger Warner Bros. contract players (Peter Brown, Ty Hardin, Will Hutchins) looked a little too cleancut and well-fed and groomed to be the hardened, nearly emaciated jungle warriors they were supposed to be.

Fuller came to the French Institute  in New York in 1987 to appear at a retrospective of his films. I went to see THE CRIMSON KIMONO, which was followed by a Q&A with the great man himself. Afterwards, he made time to sign things for us, so I’d brought a book about him that had been published in conjunction with a series of his films at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1969. At the urging of his daughter Samantha, Fuller drew a little caricature of himself on the page below his signature.

Fuller was in lots of films as an actor, particularly after directing jobs began to dry up. He’s quite good as a mobster in Germany in THE AMERICAN FRIEND, by Wim Wenders, based on Patricia Highsmith’s “Ripley’s Game,” which stars Dennis Hopper as Ripley and Nicholas Ray as a supposedly dead artist who keeps turning out “newly discovered” work. Hopper had earlier directed Fuller in his film, THE LAST MOVIE (1971). Fuller turned up in a cameo role as a war correspondent in his own film, THE BIG RED ONE.

However, one can argue that Fuller’s most memorable film appearance was in Jean-Luc Godard’s PIERROT LE FOU (1966). In a party scene, star Jean-Paul Belmondo meets Fuller, playing himself, and asks him something along the lines of what film means to him or what the essence of film is, and Fuller responds with a line he came up with himself: “Film is like a battleground:  love, hate, action, violence, death. In a word, emotion.” If that doesn’t sum up Fuller’s career, I don’t know what does.

Fuller’s autobiography, co-written with his wife Christa Lang and his longtime friend Jerome Rudes, was called “A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking.” It came out in 2002, five years after his death in 1997. It’s an excellent book and I quoted from it in my entry on THE BIG RED ONE.

He once wrote and directed an episode of the western TV series, “The Virginian.” The episode was titled “It Tolls for Thee” and it stars Lee Marvin (future star of THE BIG RED ONE) as an outlaw who kidnaps Judge Garth (Lee J. Cobb). Here’s a link to my IMDB review of it:

Fuller participated in a documentary film, FALKENAU, THE IMPOSSIBLE  (1988), that incorporates 21 minutes of footage Fuller himself shot at a death camp in Czechoslovakia after the American commander of the troops which liberated the camp rounded up the leading citizens of the adjacent town and ordered them to dress and prepare the bodies from the camp for burial and transport them by wagon to the cemetery.  I reviewed that one on IMDB also and here’s the link:

There have been plenty of documentaries about Fuller, often involving younger directors who were in awe of him. TIGRERO, A FILM THAT WAS NEVER MADE (1994) features Fuller and Jim Jarmusch on a trip through the Amazon to locations that Fuller scouted for a proposed-but-never-made mid-’50s melodrama set in the Amazon and scheduled to star John Wayne, Ava Gardner, and Tyrone Power. Fuller later used some of the 16mm color footage he shot there as part of a hallucinatory sequence in SHOCK CORRIDOR. Adam Simon, who got his start working for Roger Corman, made a film about Fuller called THE TYPEWRITER, THE RIFLE AND THE MOVIE CAMERA (1996), which also featured Jarmusch, in addition to Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, and Tim Robbins.

Barry Sullivan, the star of Fuller’s FORTY GUNS, has a centennial coming up as well and I’ll be doing an entry on him later this month.

Now to sit down and re-watch some Fuller classics to celebrate this day.


P.S. After submitting this entry, I watched HOUSE OF BAMBOO on VHS (taped off AMC some 11 years ago!), the first time I’ve seen it in decades. I was surprised to realize that Sessue Hayakawa, who plays a Tokyo police inspector, was dubbed by another actor who was clearly not a native Japanese speaker (“Choe-toe Mah-tay!”). The screenplay was based on an earlier 20th Century Fox crime film, THE STREET WITH NO NAME (1948), which I saw last year for the first time. The earlier film had a much better command of the crime aspects of the story. There are some contrivances in this version that just didn’t work for me, e.g. the way the gang boss handles betrayal within his ranks. Shirley Yamaguchi plays Mariko, widow of a slain gang member, who becomes the “kimono girl” of the undercover officer (Robert Stack) assigned to infiltrate the gang. There’s a bit of “China Doll” stereotyping in the way she caters to Stack (“In Japan, a woman is taught from childhood to please a man”), but her character is much more layered than anyone else in the film and her scenes with Stack, after some initial tensions before Stack learns to trust her, have a palpable tenderness in them that transcends the genre trappings of the film. I believe Yamaguchi’s own voice is used, since her scenes all appear to have been recorded sync-sound. She’s billed third, above the title, a placement she well deserved. There’s excellent location work in Japan and lots of Japanese is spoken in the film. I’ve never been able to spot Fuller’s cameo as a Japanese cop.

P.P.S. A colleague sent me a link to an excellent article on Fuller’s legacy on the Web2carz website. Here’s the link:


One Response to “Sam Fuller Centennial”

  1. Robert Regan August 13, 2012 at 12:32 PM #

    Another great post, Brian. Viva Fuller!

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