A Fuller Life: The Story of a True American Maverick (Review)

A Fuller Life: The Story of a True American Maverick (Review)

fullerlife-dvdcover 001

Chrisam Films
80 Minutes
$15.00 (Through PayPal)

thirdface-samfuller-bookcoverThis documentary history of what Samuel Fuller attained during his best years as a film writer-producer-director was released on DVD in 2013 and produced by his daughter Samatha Fuller, the result of a 29-year-long marriage Fuller enjoyed with French actress Christa Lang. It is a unique documentary in that every word spoken by several movie-world personalities has been taken directly from the pages of Fuller’s autobiography, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking, published posthumously in 2002 (Fuller died in 1997 at the age of 85).

Among the personalities chosen as on-camera celebrities are James Franco, Jennifer Beals, Bill Duke, James Toback, Kelly Ward, Perry Lang, Robert Carradine, director Joe Dante, Tim Roth, German director Wim Wenders, Buck Henry, filmmaker Monte Hellman, producer-director William Friedkin and the beautiful actress Constance Towers. (She I had met while on the set of Fuller’s 1964 feature The Naked Kiss; see my companion piece on Fuller for more revealing details.) It is an intriguing combination of men and women who have made their own contributions to the movies, some of them having worked in Fuller’s movies while others were acquaintances or friends.

The life story of Samuel Fuller (1912-1997) begins on the streets of New York City in the late 1910s when he was selling major newspapers. He became so fascinated with the content of those papers, published in an area of the city called Park Row, that he became a copy boy at 15 under the tutelage of famed editor Arthur Brisbane of the New York Mirror. After also working with another famed editor, Gene Fowler, Fuller, now at the age of 17, became a reporter for the New York Journal.

Not long after that, he was a crime reporter for the New York Evening Graphic and earned fame for covering the death of Broadway actress Jeanne Eagels by sneaking into the mortuary where her body had been taken. He also covered electric-chair executions at Sing Sing Prison in those early years. (This opened the door to a lifetime of having to deal with the tragic theme of death, given the years of bloody military combat that lay ahead for Fuller.)

The violence of the 1934 strike as Fuller remembered it
The violence of the 1934 San Francisco strike as Fuller remembered it

By the early 1930s, the Depression Years, Fuller had started traveling across the country. He paused in San Francisco in 1934 and went to work as a freelance writer at the Chronicle, covering a major labor strike that had a debilitating effect on the city and which left many dead. In Fuller’s words: “corpses in the streets.” (Once again, that theme of death was looming before him.) He discovered that people were ready to kill for food, they were so hungry. His articles described violence and anarchy, and were so impactful that the Chronicle syndicated them to other newspapers. (How ironic, I’ve thought many times, that I ended up working for 33 years at the same newspaper.)

In Little Rock, Arkansas, Fuller covered a Ku Klux Klan gathering and noticed a hooded woman in the KKK crowd with a baby in her arms who took time to breast feed the infant. That part was cut from the article because there was no photo to support Fuller’s claim–it was one of many lessons he learned during those years, a “downfall moment.” Around this same time Fuller’s first novel, Burn, Baby, Burn, was published and he headed for Hollywood, where his old friend Gene Fowler helped him at RKO Radio Pictures with his screenwriting. It Happened in Hollywood (1937) and Gangs of New York (1938) were among his early scripts, followed by several that only gave him story, not script, credit.

DDay_-_Omaha_Beach_Wallpaper_qgkjmAfter Dec. 7, 1941, Fuller felt nothing he was doing in Hollywood was important. It was now time to volunteer for the U.S. military and serve his country. He became what he would always call a “dogface,” a soldier who would slog through mud, crawl through slime, and do whatever he had to to endure the maniacal hell of war. He even refused the opportunity to write special reports following each battle his unit would soon face, feeling he would rather fight than write. That unit was the 16th Infantry Regiment of the First Infantry Division, or The Big Red One.

As a dogface he would take part in the first major U.S. offensive against Germany and Italy when he hit the beach in North Africa a year after signing up. That was soon followed by participation in the battle for Sicily.

And then came the worst moment of all, D-Day, June 6, 1944. The Big Red One hit Omaha Beach and Fuller was caught up in the pure hell of it, pinned down on the beach which, he later remembered, was littered with dead bodies, severed limbs, strewn intestines. But somehow, miraculously, he survived the carnage and fought on across Europe.

He always carried a Bell & Howell 16 mm camera in his field pack, and was always taking footage of battles. So, in 1945 when his unit reached the Falkenau Concentration Camp in Czechoslovakia, he was ordered by his commanding officer to film the endless heaps of dead bodies scattered across the camp. (This footage was later used in the documentary Faulkenau: The Impossible.)

Among his wartime awards: the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart.

From the moment he returned to Hollywood to resume his film career, he knew he wanted to expose audiences to things they usually didn’t see portrayed on a movie screen. Robert L. Lippert, a major American exhibitor during the war years, had moved from Alameda to Hollywood in 1946 to make low-budget features.

Producer Robert L. Lippert

The timing was perfect for Lippert and Fuller to make handshake deals. In 1949 I Shot Jesse James proved to be Fuller’s way of telling some truths hidden behind myths and legends of the Old West – as was 1950’s Baron of Arizona starring Vincent Price as James Reavis, who tried to claim he owned the territory of Arizona through phony paper work.

Now it was time for Fuller to really kick ass and expose the art of warfare as he saw it with The Steel Helmet (1951), the first film about the Korean War and one of the first to deal with racial issues that plagued America. Fuller’s battle-hardened Sergeant Zack, played by Gene Evans, became one of the most realistic depictions of an American “dogface.” Richard Loo, as a Japanese-American soldier nicknamed “Buddhahead,” reflected back on how his U.S.-based family had been interred during World War II, and black medic James Edwards reflects on how his people have to ride in the back of buses, even though he feels that racism is one day going to be straightened out in American.

steelhelmet-geneevans-zackFrom here to eternity, Fuller’s Zack remains the ultimate movie soldier. The Thousand-Yard-Look in his bloodshot eyes; the grizzled, unshaven “dog” face; always a half-smoked, half-chomped stogie hanging from the corner of his ragged lips; a snarl always half-formed on those chapped lips. Zack . . . hard as nails, a veteran of the horrors of World War II (yeah, a member of the 16th Infantry Regiment) who had some very revealing things to say about G. I. Joe: “Nothin’ like the Infantry. If you’re in a plane and get hit, you still gotta fall. Two strikes against you. On a ship, you get hit, you can still drown. In a tank, you can fry like an egg. But in the Infantry, you get hit, one thing or another, you’re dead or alive. But you’re on the ground. Get wise. Nothin’ like the Infantry.”

fixedbayonets-photo3Fuller made enough money from The Steel Helmet that he decided to finance his next effort, an independent production entitled Park Row (1952). It depicted war between two American newspapers during the 1880s and again starred Gene Evans in a leading role. But it didn’t make money and Fuller was glad when Darryl F. Zanuck, who had loved The Steel Helmet, offered him a job directing another war film at 20th Century-Fox. Fuller’s script for Fixed Bayonets was a follow-up to Steel Helmet in that it depicted an early battle of the Korean War, in which an Army regiment ordered to retreat from the front lines assigns a small unit to remain behind and hold the enemy at bay, i.e. rear-guard action. This time Gene Evans portrayed a grizzled vet named Sergeant Rock.

220px-PickuponsouthstreetFor Fuller it was the beginning of a contract that led to five more studio-produced films, chief among them being the classic film noir Pick Up on South Street (1953). Its main character Skip McCoy (played by Richard Widmark) is a cheap hoodlum pickpocket whose involvement with a Communist spy ring so outraged FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover that he confronted Fuller and accused him of creating an anti-American character. “He was blackmailing me to keep himself in power,” said Fuller. “I grab my audience by the balls. I never leave my audience indifferent.”

A Fuller Life goes on to describe how Fuller finally became a father when he was 63 years of age, and went on to make the film of his dreams, The Big Red One, in Israel in 1979. (Originally Fuller had planned to make the film with John Wayne as far back as 1959, but the deal had fallen through and the script had remained dormant in Fuller’s locked safe for decades.) His next film White Dog, about a stray dog that is trained to attack blacks, was deemed racist and not given wide release by Paramount in 1982. After that Fuller’s career was pretty much finished, but when he fell into failing health in the early 1990s his wife Christa and daughter Samantha brought him back to Hollywood, where he died in 1997 at the age of 85.

Christa Lang, soon to be Mrs. Sam Fuller
Christa Lang, soon to be Mrs. Sam Fuller

Bonus features include a brief appearance by Fuller’s wife, Christa Lang Fuller. I wish there had been more about this actress-wife-mother, as she had a film career in France as far back as 1963. Another bonus is a segment of clips featuring the on-camera narrators as each relates a personal story about Samuel Fuller, this time shaped by their own words. Several of them, especially Bill Duke, William Friedkin and Constance Towers, are very moving.

The third bonus feature, entitled Organized Insanity, is black-and-white 16 mm footage Fuller took as his unit crossed battle-torn Europe. After I saw this short bonus, I was in contact with Samantha and she told me she is now working on a full-length DVD, to be called Organized Insanity. In her own words, “This will be a film solely focusing on Sam’s war experiences. It will contain more footage he shot with his 16mm Bell & Howell.” Her new documentary will also contain photographs, Sam’s war correspondence and cartoons he himself created.
Samantha further told me: “I’m working with amazing material and it blows my mind over and over again every time I think about the horrific experience my father survived!” Organized Insanity, Fuller’s personal definition of war,  is still in its very early stages and Samantha feels it might take her a couple of years to complete it due to the fact she is currently involved with other projects.
I can only imagine Fuller took miles and miles of film as he crossed those devastated European countries in the months after D-Day, serving the Big Red One in his unique way. And of course there is the footage of the Falkenau Concentration Camp. This should be a documentary to make history. I wish Samantha the very best.


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