"Film is a battleground. Love, hate, violence, action, death...In a word, emotion."
There's Reality Is Unrealistic
and then there's Samuel Fuller. Born in August 12, 1912, in Worcester, Massachusetts to a Russian Jewish family called Rabinowitz(which had anglicized to Fuller), he was named after
Dr. Samuel Fuller, who served on The Mayflower. This pedigree and lineage defined Fuller, a Working Class Hero
who was an outsider but who was paradoxically, more American than American and represented the same profile to his European fans as satirists like Mark Twain
and H. L. Mencken
. After his father's death, Fuller's mother arrived in New York where Fuller's autodidactic zest eventually led him to skip school and work as a newspaper boy
. This started an association with the Hearst press, and Fuller eventually became a copyboy, and then left the newspaper and became a crime journalist. His first big story was the death of Broadway star, Jeanne Eagles. In the years of The Great Depression
, Fuller traveled the land, covering strikes, race riots, brothels, bar dives and the Klan in the South. He even ran into Al Capone
. Then he became a pulp fiction writer, then he went to Hollywood as a screenwriter and then World War II
broke out and Fuller enlisted as a US First Infantryman serving several tours of duty in North Africa, Sicily and he was part of the first waves on Omaha Beach on D-Day. All this
, before directing his first film in 1949 at the age of 36.
There's Taught by Experience
and there's a life that allows you, in Fuller's words, "to cover the biggest crime story of the century"
. The very first film Fuller shot was footage of the liberation of the concentration camp Falkenau, an experience which needless to say left a mark on him. When Fuller made his films, he had little time for sentiment, phony gimmicks and a journalist's instinct to get to the heart of things
. The result is some of the most visually exciting and unforgettable films of the 50s, in genres like The Western
, Film Noir
and especially War Movies
. He also made some Genre-Busting
satirical films like Shock Corridor
, The Naked Kiss
and White Dog
, which explored the underbelly of America. As a director, Fuller's personality was incredibly charismatic and large hearted and he was never without his impressive cigar, instead of calling action, he would fire a revolver on set. He wrote, produced and directed his best films and was prized in France for being an auteur, counting many a Big Name Fan
like Jean-Luc Godard, FranÁois Truffaut
The Fall of the Studio System
led to a period in wildnerness for Fuller, where he worked in Television and as a screenwriter for hire with many projects stuck in Development Hell
. Paradoxically, Fuller became a Living Legend
, appearing in films by other directors and regarded as an Old Master
who young directors took pilgrimages to seek advice and inspiration from. He was the first choice for the role of Hyman Roth in Francis Ford Coppola
's The Godfather Part II
, and an audition with him and Al Pacino
exists(the role was passed over by Elia Kazan and was later played by acting teacher Lee Strasberg). Eventually, Fuller made his comeback with the film he waited all his life to make, The Big Red One
starring Lee Marvin
and Mark Hamill
. Executive Meddling
prevented it from becoming a major hit (a Re Cut
after his death restores the full vision of Fuller's great film). It's the only major World War II
film shot by an actual veteran infantryman and survivor and is uncanny for its accuracy in portraying the psychology of warfare. His second film of the 80s was White Dog
, about a dog trained to attack black people; it was shelved and Misblamed
although it would be Vindicated by History
. Fuller made TV films after that, and retired in France where he had a daughter in his later years and spent his final years working on his autobiography with the distinct title, A Third Face : My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Film-making
which was published and edited by his wife Christa Fuller(herself an actress who appeared in Godard's Alphaville
The list of people influenced by Fuller are legendary. Steven Spielberg
(who cast him in his 1941
in a brief cameo), Martin Scorsese
, Jonathan Demme
, Quentin Tarantino
and Jim Jarmusch
in addition to his large following in Europe. There's a street named after him in Finland
. Put it simply, they don't make 'em like Sammy Fuller anymore.
Tropes from his movies.
- Ambiguously Gay : Or not so ambiguous, his first film I Shot Jesse James asserts this of Robert Ford and also in House Of Bamboo via gang leader Robert Ryan.
- Anti-Hero : Many types show up. But this is a common feature of his movies.
- Backed by the Pentagon : A major subversion. His film The Steel Helmet made at the height of the Red Scare made controversial anti-racist statements and showed American soldiers violating the Geneva convention which earned him an invitation to the Pentagon to explain himself. Years later, Fuller was proud when a screening of The Big Red One by Army brass resulted in one officer lamenting it had "no recruitment potential".
- Fuller stated broadly that he was always skeptical of peopling enlisting because of how war looks good in the movies and tried to avert this in his own works by showing it for what it is.
- Badass : Fuller was a real life one. A war veteran, a crime reporter and an all around tough guy but also a genuine gentleman.
- Cool Old Guy : Among his admirers, and in his video interviews, he gives this impression. Also borne out in his wonderful autobiography filled with anecdotes.
- Darker and Edgier : To American cinema on the whole, Fuller's films were much less sentimental, harder and more brutal than earlier crime films or westerns at the time.
- Deconstruction : He was especially concerned with how war and violence was shown in movies. The Steel Helmet has a Jerk Ass Anti-Hero deliberately making fun of No One Gets Left Behind when one private insists on recovering dog tags from a corpse, and ends up getting blown up by a booby-trapped body. His films even attack the Band of Brothers sentimentalism, with a squad composed of soldiers who are bound more by Teeth-Clenched Teamwork, with each one focused on their survival and they avoid people they consider incompetent and accident prone and avoid forming bonds with newer soldiers or "replacements" once they become veterans.
- Film Noir: Pickup on South Street. The Naked Kiss and Shock Corridor also use elements of noir.
- Freak Out : His films in scenes of great emotion and violence and action feature wild camera movements and editing tricks, which has this effect.
- Go Among Mad People : His film Shock Corridor is a famous example of this trope.
- Gun Nut: For example, instead of yelling "Action!", he would fire a revolver in the air.
- Old Master : Had this reputation in the 60s and 70s among the directors who looked up at him. They would visit him for script advice and other anecdotes or cast him in their movies in cameos.
- Seen It All : Before he directed his first film, he covered urban riots, city crime, waterfronts, fascist rallies in America and during the war, he saw tours of duty across North Africa and Europe, and participated in the liberation of a concentration camp which haunted him for the rest of his life. All this before directing his first film.
- Sophisticated as Hell : This is perhaps the truest definition of Fuller's style. His dialogue and plots were over-the-top and obvious but they were also intelligent, critical and brilliant, mixing high and low culture frequently.
- War Is Hell : Fuller's movies show that war for the foot-soldier is a painful trudge through trenches, dense forest and dirt cover, surrounded by a squad who are out for their own neck when their incompetence is not likely going to get you killed and where most of the time, you can't see your enemy and feel any real ideological connect to why you are fighting.
- War Is Glorious : Fuller has the last word, the final narration of The Big Red One narrated by Author Avatar who is retelling the story,
"We'd all made it through we were alive. I'm gonna dedicate my book to those who shot but didn't get shot, because it's about survivors. And surviving is the only glory in war, if you know what I mean."
- Wide-Eyed Idealist: Despite how dark and grim his movies are, Fuller was himself this, a patriot who believed that if America came to terms with its flaws it could be an even better place.