The First Films of Samuel Fuller: Criterion Eclipse Series
Trained as a journalist, Samuel Fuller felt the call of Hollywood and left the New York copyrooms to become a screenwriter. He was beginning to have some success and also started in writing novels, but then the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and at the age of 30 Fuller enlisted. He was a grunt and refused to take a cushy assignment that would get him away from the action, so he was with the famous U.S. Army battalion the Big Red One through the end of the war. Journalism and the war taught Fuller that it's all about the pursuit of truth, and that there's no time for sentimentality or (as Fuller would call it) "jibber-jabber." He returned to Hollywood, but he was no longer satisfied with just writing the stories. So, in 1949, he made his first feature-length film as a writer and director for B-grade producer Robert L. Lippert. They made three pictures together in total, with 1951's The Steel Helmet so successful that eventually Twentieth Century Fox came calling and Fuller went to the majors (though still making B movies). Criterion's Eclipse series has captured these three Lippert films and put them into the set The First Films of Samuel Fuller, with all three films presented in clean (but with occasional print damage) full-screen ratios (1.33:1) and in DD 1.0 mono, all in three slimline DVD keep-cases with a paperboard slipcover
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Fuller's first film was I Shot Jesse James, which tells the story of Bob Ford (John Ireland), the man who gunned James (Reed Hadley) down. Though Fuller had no respect for James (Fuller described James in his autobiography as "a low down thief, a pervert and a sonofabitch") he wanted to tell the tail of an assassin who has to live with the guilt of killing a friend and chose Ford because Lippert wouldn't let him make one about Cassius killing Caesar. And so the film shows Jesse James being friendly to his killer, even taking Ford in after he was shot and dropped the loot during a hold up. Ford is smitten with traveling actress Cynthy Waters (Barbara Britton) and knows the only way he can lead a normal life is if he plugs James. And so Ford goes to James and tries to find his opening to shoot in one sequence, Jesse is in the tub and instead of shooting him, Bob scrubs his back but when Ford finally does pull the trigger he's viewed as a coward and loser. He gets a job acting out his shooting of James, and he begins to lose his hold on Cynthy to another man. Shot over ten days with a strong reliance on the close-up, Fuller's first film is captivating because he approaches the narrative and storytelling as if he was inventing cinema for himself. It doesn't feel like anything else, and it sure doesn't seem like other westerns of the time (that didn't present such obvious latent homosexuality). For Ford, his act to escape becomes the very act that destroys him. It's heady stuff, but still great pulp.
For his follow up, The Baron of Arizona (1950), Fuller digged up a great bit of American arcana. James Addison Reavis (played in the film by Vincent Price) was a master charlatan who concocted an elaborate scheme to present the case that his wife, Sofia (Ellen Drew) is the long lost heir to the Peralta claim (which is also bogus) over all the land in Arizona. For the cinematic telling of his life, Fuller concocts the whole adventure as a heist film, with Price going through numerous machinations (one involved becoming a priest for four years, another becoming a lothario hooked up with gypsies) to get his big score. Often considered a minor work, Baron is a perfect example of Fuller telling a yarn. With the structure ingrained from his years a journalist, the film hooks the viewer in and keeps upping the tension.
But the masterpiece of the collection is Fuller's first war film The Steel Helmet (1951). Shot over two weeks with locations in Griffith Park, it was set in Korea, which made it a hot-button film (the country was only six months into the mid-century Korea conflict) and became a smash hit. It's easy to see why it's a combat film (perhaps the first) that doesn't dwell in patriotism or the horrors of war, instead observing the practicalities. Sgt. Zack (Gene Evans) is introduced bound and wearing a bullet-scared helmet when he meets a kid he nicknames "Short Round" (William Chun, and yes, that's where Spielberg and Lucas got the name). Zack is separated from his unit and eventually teams up with black medic Cpl. Thompson (James Edwards). The three then join with surviving members of their battalion and take refuge in a Buddhist temple, where Korean snipers are also hiding out. The Fuller ethos and his sense of war are on full display here, and he puts in many details from his own experience that make it more lively than most other films about war. Then again, besides Oliver Stone, there aren't many other filmmakers who can say they've seen front-line combat. And that explains why there's no jingoism on display: One youth sees a dead GI and wants to go for the dog-tags, but Zack tells him that he's stupid to even care. The kid goes for them anyway and is killed by a boobytrap, which leads Zack to chew out the rest of crew before the second body is cold. There's no time for grief, and at the end of the film, the survivors simply soldier on (and the film ends with a title card announcing "There is no end to this story"). The men get a POW who needles both the black and Japanese members of the squad about America's racism (putting it also in the audience's face), while later Zack takes aim at the unarmed POW and shoots him. Fuller knew that the Geneva Conventions were being flouted long before Abu Graib, and that's why Helmet feels just as fresh and relevant today as it must have when it was released. Here is where that pursuit of truth and lack of sentimentality first solidified for a master.