The First Films of Samuel Fuller Review

The Films


Fiercely patriotic in his outlook but clearly critical of American society, Samuel Fuller's movies contain all-American anti-heroes who are often from marginalised backgrounds - such as a cowardly soldier in Fixed Bayonets, a mercenary sailor in Hell and High Water and an avaricious journalist in Shock Corridor. These anti-heroes allowed Fuller to use genre movies to scrutinise the underbelly of crime, politics and war. In the process he created some of the finest independently minded American cinema of the fifties and sixties.


I Shot Jesse James

Fuller's first film as a director works from his own script and offers another take on the story of Robert Ford, the man who shot Jesse James. Rather than accept the usual version of events with Ford as a cheating coward who murdered his benefactor and then gloried in his infamy, Fuller tells a tale of a man torn between the love of his life and his best friend, the Robin Hood of the western, Jesse James. Ford is a desperate man whose criminal success with the James gang comes at the terrible price of conventional freedom and romantic happiness. When a bounty, and importantly an amnesty, is placed on James for whoever captures or kills him, Ford sees a way out of his life of hiding from the law and an opportunity to marry his sweetheart before another captures her heart. Every piece of James' kindness twists like a knife in Ford's guts and fate seems to be giving him a message to do the lawmen's bidding when James offers him the present of a gun. Finally Ford can't resist and he turns himself in for the amnesty and the reward - an officially sanctioned killer.
Ford finds neither peace nor reward for his actions - his sweetheart turns against him, young men queue up to be the man who killed the man who killed Jesse James, and songs get sung to celebrate the man he killed whilst exposing his cowardice. Ford can only find work on the stage repeating his infamy in a reconstruction, and eventually decides that he will win his love back by striking it rich in silver mining. Her heart has become another's and Frank James is on his trail and wherever Ford goes he is haunted by his desire for a normal life. Fuller spins the facts, invents quite a few new ones, and provides sympathy for a man that the public had thought a devil.

I Shot Jesse James is daring in its execution and to see Fuller begin with a western is intriguing given that his more familiar movies would be in the war genre(cold or actual). It doesn't quite work and the bending of history is excessive in his attempts to humanise Ford. The central character is a weak man who dreams of a freedom and normalcy whose actions to get to his dream will inevitably dash it for ever. John Ireland tries to make Ford sympathetic and complex but he fails, and the writing of the plot points doesn't always match the intelligence of some of Fuller's ideas. As a counterpoint to Lang's The Return of Frank James this makes an interesting double bill, even if the quality is not as good as later Fuller projects.


The Baron of Arizona

The real-life swindler, James Reavis, is the subject of Fuller's second film, and it is his good fortune that Vincent Price takes on the title role with the theatrical relish that only Price can provide. Rather than centre his film on the immorality of Reavis's attempts to enrich himself with false land claims, Fuller chooses to offer an appreciation of this rogue's progress. Reavis, in the film, is no simple con-man as his plans show immense cunning, careful preparation, and a commitment that it is impossible to deny. Starting from walking out of the sheeting rain into a peasant's home, Reavis grooms a peasant child to be his false heir to Spanish land rights in a plan that will take years to come to fruition.
Price shines as this trickster and seduction artist with his mendacious much used chat up line - "I have known many women, but with you I'm afraid". He infiltrates a monastery and thinks nothing of three years of celibacy and devotion in order to change one book in the monastery library to further his plan. When he finds the book has another copy, he merely seduces a gypsy temptress and convinces her clan to infiltrate a noble man's castle. Years after leaving the peasant child he meets her again in Paris, a grown up beauty ready for the plucking as his plan goes to the next stage with further sweet nothings. Price swaggers, blusters and has a hell of a time in a role made for him.

Again, Fuller changed the history to fit his story but his second film as a writer-director is much more successful than his first. Partly this is due to fantastic scope and daring in the performances and staging, but mostly it is Price being magnetic and magnificent. The screenplay deals with the logistics of plot much better than his first film, but it does have a silly final act where Price is reformed by true love and the discovery of conscience. This is a pity because he is a tremendous anti-hero and a witty rogue, and his Paulean conversion seems tacked on and unrealistic for such an assiduous blackguard. Still, the joy of the movie is the rolliciking adventures of a handsome devil and Price is perfect in this respect.


The Steel Helmet

It is with his third film that Fuller finally seems at home with his subject matter and its realisation. Rather than borrow the headlines of the past, The Steel Helmet anticipates the Korean War with American soldiers lost and battered by the Northern forces. We begin amongst the corpses of slaughtered servicemen as the one survivor, Sergeant Zack, tries to get free from his bounds. A Korean boy approaches carrying a gun and he plays dead, but this boy is on his side and cuts him free and the two try to make their way out of the warzone. They meet a black medic who has the same story as them as the sole survivor of a massacre, and all three meet a platoon on their way to hold a vantage point at a local temple.
Zack is drawn in to helping the platoon to complete his mission despite his better judgement about the racist lieutenant. They make it through snipers, ambushes and booby-trapped corpses, and we are introduced to a ramshackle band of Japanese Americans, former conscientious objectors, balding teenagers and nearly mute soldiers. Together, they are the US army! At the temple, they find themselves under attack and when the boy is killed, Zack loses his cool and shoots their prisoner. Still they can warn the troops of an enemy offensive even if they end up on the end of an onslaught because of it. The North Koreans are defeated, but those that survive are those that choose to fight for their country despite how America has treated them.

The Steel Helmet is breathtaking and brilliant. A war film that asks why Japanese Americans fight for a country that interred them and humiliated them during WWII, why African Americans risk their lives for a country that segregates them and why anyone wants to fight given the looming threat to themselves. The larger part of the film is set in a Buddhist temple with a huge golden Buddha overlooking the American troops whilst their communist prisoner points out all the reasons that they shouldn't fight for the country that treats them so badly. They listen and acknowledge the points but make clear their hatred for the communist solution and when the battle comes, they fight for one another and show their fidelity to their brothers.
A film that is years ahead of its time and that has some nuggets for people who think Patriotism is about unquestioning obedience. The Steel Helmet is a lesson for film-makers who want to make political points in that it succeeds in hitting its targets because the characters within it have humanity and make us think their words are personal rather than dogma. This was to become the great strength of Fuller's films - his inclusive humane approach would show camaraderie and celebrate people, all the while fighting for the underdogs.


The Discs


This set comes in a dustsleeve enclosure with the three films in individual slimline disc cases. Only Baron Of Arizona is on a dual layer disc but these are short films with no extras so single layer discs are perfectly acceptable. The transfers are all good and apparently Baron Of Arizona has undergone some restoration. The prints have some marks and minor damage but this has negligible impact on the quality of the image. The three black and white transfers have good grading of the contrast and are very detailed and sharp with nothing to complain about other than the continuing issue of overscan boxes. The audio shows minor distortion in the music but a lack of pops and crackling overall.
Each disc comes with no extras, only offering scene access and play movie options. The inner sleeves of the cases contain good introductions to the films.

Summary


Fuller is a superb example of an independent film-maker with a personal vision. He enjoys questioning the official version of history and re-inventing villains and in the first two films here he took his first steps as a director to build on his vision. By the third film, the excellent The Steel Helmet, he started to prove the quality that would be obvious in masterpieces like Fixed Bayonets and Pickup on South Street. This set is fine quality and a welcome expansion of the availability Fuller's films on DVD.

Film
7 out of 10
Video
7 out of 10
Audio
6 out of 10
Extras
1 out of 10
Overall

7

out of 10

Last updated: 19/04/2018 01:32:03

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