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A Fuller Life | reviews, news & interviews

A Fuller Life

A Fuller Life

Sam Fuller's journeys to hell supersede his movie career in his daughter's documentary

Sam Fuller (no relation to Graham Fuller) on the set of his misunderstood anti-racist film 'White Dog'

A master of visceral cinema, Samuel Fuller (1912-97) directed 23 features during his exemplary career, writing 21 of them and an unquantifiable number of others. Clips from many appear in A Fuller Life, an affectionate documentary conceived, co-produced, directed, and introduced by Samantha Fuller, his proud daughter, and culled, word for word, from Fuller’s posthumous autobiography, which was co-authored by his wife Christa Lang Fuller (the documentary’s executive producer) and Jerome Henry Rudes. Oddly, those clips weren’t really needed.

They illustrate, of course, Fuller’s frazzling tabloid aesthetic as they do his liberal conscience. Yet they might have been reserved for a second film – perhaps one about Fuller as a scourge of institutionalised war, racism, and corruption, and whose confrontational “primitivist” style (as the film critic Andrew Sarris described it) may or may not have been calculated. This isn’t to say a dutiful auteur study would have been preferable to his daughter’s proxy memoir. On the contrary, Fuller’s pre-directorial life was so packed with the traumatizing incidents he endured or witnessed on national and international frontlines that his feeding them into his films comes across as less significant. In this setting at least, the vitality of his sensational art is overpowered by the appalling reality and gruesomeness of his experiences. (Pictured below: Fuller the crime reporter.)

To tell her father’s story chronologically, Ms. Fuller got actors (including Fuller alumni like Constance Towers, Jennifer Beals, Bill Duke, Robert Carradine, Mark Hamill, Kelly Ward, and Perry Lang), admiring directors (Monte Hellman, Wim Wenders, James Toback, Joe Dante, William Friedkin), and hyphenate Buck Henry to sit in her father’s den and read from his book. Some of them (not Towers or Beals) vaguely affect Fuller’s growl or puff or toy with a Fuller-trademarked stogie (Wenders was clearly glad to discard his after completing his piece). James Franco seems an inappropriately modish choice to read as the youthful Fuller but captures the hard-boiled tyke he must have been. Some of the casting was overly literal, yet Tim Roth’s and Wenders' unaffected readings of excerpts dealing with England and Germany respectively are among the best.

An animated short pops out of nowhere to illustrate a Joe Dante-read episode that details the skeptical response of a GI to an I8-year-old Sicilian woman's claim she was raped and brutalized. Henry tells a priceless Fuller anecdote about how he and 20th Century-Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck, the director’s main supporter in Hollywood, infuriated J. Edgar Hoover over lunch by explaining why the thieving hero (Richard Widmark, pictured below with Jean Peters) of Fuller' s Pickup on South Street (1953) wasn’t a rabid anti-Communist.

Fuller’s ebullience and creative (but not material) ambition, and his willingness to expose himself to volatile, terrifying situations, surges through the narration. A Manhattan street-corner newsboy who had scored a crime reporter’s job on the exploitative New York Evening Graphic by the time he was 17, he witnessed at least seven electric-chair executions at Sing Sing prison before he asked to be given something less harrowing to cover, such as a hanging. “If you don’t like it, move to another state,” his boss said. After hitchhiking and freight-car riding across Depression-stricken America, he reported on food riots and 1934’s bloody West Coast Waterfront Strike. The San Francisco Chronicle sent him to a Ku Klux Klan meeting in Little Rock. He was angry when his detail about a hooded Klanswoman suckling her baby was cut from his story by his editor for defying credibility and thereafter carried a cheap camera on his assignments.

He went to Hollywood in 1936 and was selling plenty of stories and scripts when the attack on Pearl Harbor prompted him to join up. "I had a helluva opportunity to cover the biggest crime story of the century and nothing was going to stop me from being an eyewitness," he says, though given the horrors he did witness one wonders if he retrospectively put that thought into the head of the 29-year-old recruit.

Refusing a cushy Army reporter’s job to serve as a rifleman in the 16th Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division – the fabled “Big Red One” that gave its name to Fuller’s dirge-like 1980 classic starring Lee Marvin (pictured below) – he fought in North Africa and Sicily. He killed for the first time; he saw friends killed at close range. Roth quotes him ruminating on the tragedy of Allied soldiers being killed by friendly fire while training in England ahead of the Normandy landings – the film shows a photo of one such victim. After tasting saltwater and American blood while coming ashore at Omaha Beach on D-Day, Corporal Fuller survived being shot in the chest.

On 9 May, 1945, he was among the 1st Infantry soldiers who liberated the Falkenau concentration camp in Sudetenland. Fuller’s battalion commander knew he had been sent a 16mm Bell & Howell camera by his mother and supervised his filming of the burial of the emaciated victims and the witnessing of it, under pain of execution, by a delegation of Falkenau townspeople who were thus implicated in the sanctioning of the Nazi atrocities. The 23 minutes Fuller shot amounted to his first film.

The documentary, which shows only a fragment of it, unsurprisingly doesn’t mention that he had an emotionally complex relationship with the footage once he brought it home in 1945. He later claimed he hid it away, which indicates his desire to bury the trauma caused by the act of bearing witness himself, and, perhaps, the guilt he felt at having filmed the squalor and carnage. In a compelling article that addresses this theme, Margaret Orgeron notes how Fuller did look at the film again, editing it into a larger reel of his war footage and subsequently contributing it to a 1988 Emile Weiss documentary intended to help refute the claims of Holocaust deniers.

All this – and then a 40-year career battling in the trenches of a film industry resistant to the kinds of ugly truths Fuller wanted to ram in America’s face? It’s a testament to his optimism and hardiness of spirit that, after the war, he would go on to direct films targeting, sometimes perversely, racism (Run of the Arrow, Shock Corridor, pictured above, The Crimson Kimono, White Dog), the grueling-ness and absurdity of the soldier’s lot (The Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets!, China Gate, Verboten!, Merrill’s Marauders, The Big Red One), and the Cold War (Pickup on South Street, Hell and High Water). The Big Red One inscribes Fuller’s response to the horrors of Falkenau through a montage of stark shots showing the reactions of the camp liberators to the spaces where the (unseen) dead and diseased are lying.

Many of these films involve the concealing of secrets or the suppression (and eruption) of traumas. But A Fuller Life is too small and too celebratory to contain analysis – and the unpretentious Fuller would have thanked God for that, whatever he might have said to himself. Nonetheless, it’s a solid primer about a remarkable man’s journey.

He asked to be given something less harrowing to cover, such as a hanging

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