In praise of Samuel Fuller: Hollywood’s forgotten maverick

The late director’s work has lost none of its social relevancy.

Words

Liam Dunn

One of the most talented, iconoclastic and unsung mavericks of Hollywood, though relatively unknown today compared to several of his contemporaries, Samuel Fuller was a journalist, a novelist, a soldier and an independent filmmaker who lived and died by the quality of his work. He strove to not only spin a good yarn (as he liked to call them) but also to produce a kind of pure cinematic art form infused with his own brand of uncompromising honesty and passionate energy. As Martin Scorsese puts it in his foreword to Fuller’s memoir,  ‘A Third Face’, “If you don’t like Sam Fuller, you just don’t like cinema.”

Born in 1912, Fuller’s life was one of acquired knowledge and experience that would inform, and in many ways be reflected in, the more than 30 films he would go on to write and direct between the 1940s and 1990s. In his early teens, Fuller rose through the ranks of the New York newspaper scene, eventually becoming a crime reporter at 17. Fuller later set out on his own to see his native country, travelling by boxcar as an itinerant freelancer and witnessing first-hand the effects of the Great Depression that swept across the nation.

Fuller eventually settled on the west coast and began selling screenplays to Hollywood studios. When the United States entered World War Two, Fuller signed up to the US Army, looking for a front row seat to what he called “the biggest crime story of the century.” During his deployment he was involved in many major engagements of the war; Africa, Sicily, the Normandy landings and the liberation of the concentration camp at Falkenau.

Returning to Hollywood after the war, Fuller was determined that he would write and direct his own films and in 1949 he released his debut, I Shot Jesse James, a not-so subtle homoerotic retelling of the “coward” Robert Ford (played by John Ireland) whose assassination of the titular outlaw brings him a life of ill-fortune. From the very beginning of his career, Fuller resolved to always portray his characters as flawed human beings stuck in a situation, perhaps of their own making, but always beyond their control. This thematic approach would become the raison d’être of his filmography. Fuller’s subsequent films would bear this out considerably.

The Steel Helmet, set in and released during the Korean War would be heavily influenced by his own combat experience. Park Row is his love letter to the early days of journalism and Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss both touch on hot button topics such as nuclear terror, mental health and paedophilia with a critical, unblinking eye. Fuller would often speak truth to power, tearing apart America’s idea of itself to show the hypocrisy beneath the country’s righteous indignation, his films the primal scream of an unapologetic idealist.

This is most evident in one of his final and finest films, White Dog. The film, about a canine trained by white supremacists to attack African-Americans, was Fuller’s chance to expose the horrors of extreme racism that lurked beneath the surface of American society even when it felt like they were all but diminished. It is a film that, sadly, has never lost relevance.

However, Fuller’s greatest achievement was the semi-autobiographical account of his experiences in World War Two, The Big Red One. Starring Lee Marvin, the film is one of the most achingly human portrayals of men at war ever committed to celluloid. It doesn’t lack Fuller’s patented hard hitting approach but it also carries with it the weight of remembrance and sacrifice that could only come from a real life war veteran. The film contains the first and only dramatisation of the D-Day landings by a film director who was an active participant, and while it lacks the budget of Saving Private Ryan it makes up for it with a brutal matter-of-factness of which only a filmmaker like Fuller is capable.

Fuller died in 1997 in relative obscurity. A genuine maverick, his refusal to compromise on his talent or ideals saw him leave the United States to live in Paris (where he was far more appreciated thanks to the efforts of the members of the French New Wave) never to make another American film. He was a filmmaker who dared to show his beloved country its true nature and in the end was forgotten by all but a handful of fellow filmmakers, a state of affairs in much need of a corrective, for in this day and age, we need someone like Samuel Fuller, to cut through the rhetoric and tell it like it is.

Published 7 Aug 2016

Tags: Samuel Fuller

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