Tempting as it is to describe Samuel Fuller as the cinema’s brute poet, the three films included on The Criterion Collection’s fifth Eclipse series (“The First Films of Samuel Fuller”) encourage a more multifaceted reading.
Whether working as reporter or soldier, Fuller always had his hand in the arts, and he might be the living epitome of that old John Ford/Liberty Valance saw: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” His autobiography, A Third Face, pushed several friends and colleagues to an enthusiastic epiphany (“Sam Fuller won World War II!”) that I’m sure the stogie-chomping stalwart would have basked in for a delirious moment or two. But guaranteed the seriousness of his experiences would have intruded on this hypothetical reverie; for all his gruff joie de vivre, there’s a concomitantly profound sense of sadness underlying each and every shot of Fuller’s cinema.
As both reporter and soldier, he was no doubt trained to bear witness to the moment, and it is this, more than anything, that ensured his long-standing B-level status among the cinema cognoscenti. Fuller isn’t one for making artful, mock-definitive statements about the world we live in—when he gets polemical (as in the explicit racial commentary of The Steel Helmet, one of the films included in this set), his observations tend to be intentionally rough around the edges, treading bitter, defeatist misanthropy. As a liberator of the concentration camps, Fuller certainly saw his fair share of the evil that humans do, and the majority of his films suggest that such collective dis-ease is ongoing, never-ending. Contented happiness, if it comes, is either a deceptive load of bullshit or merely a momentary uplift of the soul, unique to the individual experiencing it (and how often this latter incidence occurs, for Fuller’s characters, at the point of dying).
I Shot Jesse James (1949) provides one such example of this. Fuller’s debut feature is remarkable for its sophisticated and intuitive treatment of a famed tale of the Old West, viewing Robert Ford’s (John Ireland) cowardly assassination of his friend and fellow thief Jesse James (Reed Hadley) as a quintessentially gay love story. Of I Shot Jesse James’ producer, Robert L. Lippert, Fuller observed, “[he was] too uptight to even pronounce the word homosexual,” and Fuller most certainly used this instinctive fear (one not only limited to his business partner) to his advantage. It’s not so much the explicit nature of some of the film’s allusions (James asking Ford to wash his back; the assassination itself, shot in such a way as to evoke rape) as it is Ireland’s interiorized performance and Fuller’s matter-of-fact mise en scene (complete with ripped-from-the-headlines transitional montages) that solidifies I Shot Jesse James’ accomplishments.
It would be enough for some artists to challenge the status quo by aligning audience sympathies with a murderer, but Fuller goes deeper into his protagonist’s tortured psyche, uncovering a sublimated sense of love that only finds expression as climax to his death rattle. Otherwise, Robert Ford walks around like an empty shell of a man, shunned by the community at large; forced, by monetary need, to re-enact James’ murder onstage; rejected by his actress girlfriend Cynthy Waters (Barbara Britton), who seems less put off by the murder itself than by the implication of something untoward underlying Ford’s actions. Fitting that it is she who hears his dying confession (“I’m sorry for what I done to Jess. I loved him.”) and that Fuller sees fit to exit the film on this decidedly bitter moment out of time. Like a ground-in punctuation mark closing out a frenetically hand-written confession, it packs a wallop.
In contrast, Fuller’s second feature, The Baron of Arizona (1950) is all thumbs, as much a forgery as the one perpetrated by its protagonist James Addison Reavis (Vincent Price). Price can get his freak on with the best of them, and he’s justified in declaring Reavis one of his all-time favorite roles. But his assaying of this charismatic con artist (who creates a detailed rock-paper-people trail that ascribes to he and his heirs full ownership of the state of Arizona) is strangely muted within Fuller’s muddled whole. The Baron of Arizona is a globetrotter, traversing a poverty row-forged path from the United States’ harsh western countryside to a puzzle-box Spanish monastery (where books are chained up for their own protection) and back again. Yet it never attains the hypnotic precision of Fuller’s best work (the psychologically charged sense of a nightmare unfolding), and this despite the presence of master cinematographer James Wong Howe, working for chiaroscuro-evocative scale.
But Fuller’s next film (the final one in this set) is an indisputable masterpiece. The Steel Helmet (1951) is a fever dream of the Korean War, entirely possessed of its own unique, inimitable rhythms. Gene Evans’ gruff, cigar-chomping Sergeant Zack acts as de facto head of a ragtag assemblage of soldiers and hangers-on only a few steps removed from complete caricature. The film is primarily a series of clashes between skin color, physiognomy, ideology, and attitude, but what separates this from the liberal pieties of lesser filmmakers is Fuller’s masterful abstraction of the landscape in which these confrontations occur. A battle with snipers in a fog-shrouded forest seems to go on for an eternity—it goes past the point of exhaustion to a disquieting place of hyper-awareness. Like a virus, it infects each and every subsequent action so that, say, a booby-trapped explosive packs all the numbing, horrific punch that it should—it’s not merely a punctuating, manipulative grace note; it resonates with all that has come before and all that is yet to be.
The Steel Helmet’s primary location is, fittingly, an abandoned temple that the soldiers attempt to fortify. But even with the presence of a literal deity (a passive-aggressive statue of Buddha), God is entirely absent from this place. The men argue over menial tasks, engage in casual racism and impromptu discussions of same (in this respect, Fuller was way ahead of his time, practically predicting the progress made by civil rights luminaries like Rosa Parks), but the only certainty in this brute-intellectual hothouse is death, which comes, quickly and gracelessly, on a good many of the inhabitants. The loss of William Chun’s young Korean tag-along Short Round (no doubt an inspiration for Steven Spielberg, who owes a mostly unexplored aesthetic debt to Fuller, especially in The Steel Helmet-reminiscent War of the Worlds, similarly a tale of battle-scarred survivors) drives Sergeant Zack over the edge, though his madness, for all its outward aggression, is in no way physically debilitating. Perhaps this is the ultimate tragedy for Fuller: that despite the many horrors we witness and experience, our bodies so rarely allow us respite from the everyday grind. To some, this might be a prevailing example of the indomitability of the human spirit, but Fuller’s cinema, for all its life, for all its bravado, possesses a troublingly antithetical undercurrent, a resolute desire – on the part of its characters and, perhaps, of their Creator – to escape into the pure, unencumbered bliss of insanity.
Maybe that’s what movies are for.
Image/Sound/Extras: Each film in “The First Films of Samuel Fuller” box set is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, slightly pictureboxed to compensate for television overscan. For a more detailed discussion of this, in some circles, controversial practice, see DVDBeaver webmaster Gary Tooze’s discussion in his review of Kind Hearts and Coronets. Relatively, The Baron of Arizona fares worst in the image department, though this has more to do with existing print damage than anything. Per Criterion’s reputation, this is a more than satisfactory visual presentation. Sound on all three films is Dolby Digital mono in the original English, similarly issue-free aside from any source-related defects that more attuned ears may pick up. Per the Eclipse series mission statement, there are no extras included.