Samuel Fuller’s Legacy at 100
The life and times of one of America's greatest directors.
Web2Carz Staff Writer
Published: August 12th, 2012
941 was a great year for Samuel Fuller. He had arrived in Hollywood in 1936 with a Royal typewriter and a negligible amount of money, and at last he was making a fortune as a hired gun for the big studios, ghostwriting and doctoring scripts.
With only three weeks left until New Years, the 29-year-old writer could reflect warmly on all of his success to date. In just five years, half a dozen of his stories had been bought, he was at work on a crime novel called, The Dark Page, his first original script had been made into a movie, and he planned on directing his own films sometime in the near future.
And then the war came.
It was his car radio that broke the news of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and all of the sudden his dreams of conquering Hollywood vanished in an instant. That same week he made plans to put his belongings in storage, found the closest U.S. Army induction center and Samuel Fuller volunteered for military duty. Eleven months later he was an anonymous rifleman aboard a troopship on the way to invade North Africa.
August marks the Centennial of the late filmmaker, Samuel Michael Fuller whose experiences as a crime reporter and combat infantryman prefigured the director's brutally honest and bold films, which won him the fierce admiration of cinephiles the world over and a generation of independent filmmakers including Wim Wenders, Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino, and Martin Scorsese. Scorsese once wrote, “If you don’t like the movies of Samuel Fuller then you don’t like cinema."
"Everything that happened to him in WWII wound up in all of his war movies. This guy was meant to survive and tell his story." — Bobby DiCicco
When Fuller died in 1997 at the age of 85, he left behind over 51 known scripts (adapted and original), several novels, and 30 films including Pickup on South Street, The Steel Helmet, Park Row, I Shot Jesse James, Forty Guns, Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss, White Dog, and The Big Red One, to name just a few.
But even more extraordinary was Samuel Fuller’s life, which began on August 12th, 1912 in Worcester, Massachusetts. He was one of seven children born to Jewish immigrant parents, Benjamin Rabinovitch (who changed the family name to Fuller) and Rebecca Baum. When his father died unexpectedly the family relocated to New York City and settled in Washington Heights.
On a chance visit to Park Row—the nerve center of the newspaper world—he was gobsmacked by the rumble of the massive printing presses shaking the earth beneath lower Manhattan, and soon he was a copy boy, hawking newspapers on street corners at a penny apiece.
When he turned seventeen at the height of Prohibition Fuller became one of the country’s youngest crime reporters when the New York Graphic hired him to cover New York City’s underworld and draw cartoons. It horrified his mother Rebecca to know that her “Sammy” had forsaken a formal education to investigate the lives of prostitutes, gangsters, witness prison executions, and hang out at murder scenes and morgues (the smell of formaldehyde on his clothes was the source of many fights at home).
Gene Fowler, the well-known journalist, took Fuller under his wing, introduced his young protégé to cigars, and imparted the following advice: “Writing is easy, all you have to do is stare at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.”
Next, as a freelance journalist, he traversed the country, witnessing pitched battles between mounted policemen and longshoremen during the bloody 1934 Waterfront Strike in San Francisco. He sat in on KKK rallies in Arkansas, and rode freight trains with hobos whose lives were decimated by the Great Depression.
When Fuller arrived in Hollywood in 1936 he came equipped with a backlog of stories (or "yarns" as he called them), a hot commodity in a town full of opportunistic producers on the lookout for the next big movie idea. Gene Fowler, who had preceded him there by a few years, was making money hand over fist banging out screenplays. Fowler not only encouraged his friend but also made some important introductions to help get him started.
“Sam ghostwrote for a lot of people in Hollywood,” said Kelly Ward, who played Pvt. Johnson in Fuller’s The Big Red One. “He was famously discreet, and on his word swore that he would never reveal which screenplays he had rewritten for people. So, we’re enjoying films that nobody knows that Sam was the guy who came in and fixed the picture. Big studio films."
The first time his name appeared on screen was for a comedy called Hats Off in 1936. In 1938 his first original script, a crime drama called Gangs of New York, was made into a feature film.
"Sam had a great sense of story," filmmaker Sara Driver told us in an interview. "Coming from journalism he learned how to tell stories on paper first."
Fuller cranked out scripts, made friends with Hollywood luminaries like Howard Hawks and Otto Preminger, dined out regularly at Hollywood's hot spots, and enjoyed innumerable Optimo cigars. By this time, he had grown increasingly dissatisfied with the way studios and producers had tampered with his stories, so he made the decision to direct his own films one day. But that day wouldn't come for a long time.
When the war came, Fuller made it painfully clear to his senior recruiting officer at the Army induction center that he wasn't imbued with the same patriotic fervor that inspired the thousands of other Americans to volunteer for military service after Pearl Harbor.
“I asked if I could level with him [the recruiting officer] and he said yes,” Fuller wrote in his memoir, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking. “I told him that sure, I was inspired by Roosevelt’s call to arms against the aggressors. However, the prospects of military life—being in uniform, marching, carrying a rifle, fighting—didn’t give me a hard-on. What kept going through my brain was that 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.”
It was a newspaperman’s ethos that informed Fuller’s decisions, no doubt drilled into his head by his first boss, Arthur Brisbane of the New York Journal who told him, "To get the truth of any story is impossible unless you yourself are personally involved.”
Fuller got what he asked for in spades and was assigned to the 16th Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division (nicknamed “The Big Red One”) selected to lead the American assault at Oran on November 8th,1942. And for the next two and a half years Fuller saw death up close as rifleman in a front-line unit.
Next came Sicily. He made the beach invasion at Gela on July 10th, 1943 and fought in many fierce battles against crack German troops, up through the mountains, liberating towns until the campaign ended in August and the division was sent to England to prepare for the invasion of Normandy.
When he wasn't fighting, he kept a journal of anecdotes, cartoons, dispassionate entries about the weather, potential story ideas, and character snapshots about the other "dog faces" in his outfit.
Bobby di Cicco, the actor who played Pvt. Vinci in The Big Red One told us, "Everything that happened to him in WWII wound up in all of his war movies, and my character was a composite of all the guys who he knew throughout the war. Unfortunately, most of them didn't come back. He would say, ‘this is fictional life based on factual death.’ This guy was meant to survive and tell his story.'"
It was a miracle that Samuel Fuller wasn't one of the tens of thousands of casualties on June 6th, 1944 when he waded through the surf at H-hour, amidst the body parts of dead Americans on Omaha Beach—he later was awarded the Silver Star for his heroism on D-Day. But his luck endured through every inch of Normandy’s hedgerows, the bitter winter in the Ardennes and ultimately into Czechoslovakia where the war ended on May 8th.
In the final days of the war, the 1st Division liberated the Falkenau death camp in the Sokolov district of Czechoslovakia. By chance, his mother had sent him a Bell and Howell 16mm camera months earlier, and when his company commander found out he ordered Fuller to film the evidence of Nazi atrocities. It was his debut as a director.
"It’s important that Sam had a whole life and career before he turned to filmmaking," said film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum. "That’s true of people like Nicholas Ray and Jacques Tati—their films were about the world. If you make your films early, you’re in that world for the rest of your life, you’re not in touch with the world any more and the films are much narrower. Both the war and journalism are the two things that defined his work."
After the war Fuller returned to Hollywood and was doggedly determined to make up for lost time. The 1950s were productive years for Fuller. Not long after he returned he found a champion in Robert Lippert, an independent producer who not only respected Fuller but also made it possible for him to write and direct his first three films.
Those three films included the Korean War picture, The Steel Helmet, which caught the attention of Twentieth Century Fox’s Darryl F Zanuck, who signed Fuller for a seven-picture deal. Under Zanuck, Fuller made other highly successful war films, like Fixed Bayonets and Hell and High Water. Though proud of those war films he badly wanted to make a feature about his own experiences, and would spend the next 30 years desperately trying to get The Big Red One made.
"Sam loved Zanuck," said Christa Fuller, who spoke to us about her late husband from her home in Los Angeles. "He [Zanuck] understood film and writing better than most studio executives, having been a writer himself."
The feeling was mutual for the Fox studio head, and when J. Edgar Hoover saw Pickup on South Street and wanted Fuller to take out the objectionable line of dialogue ("Are you waving the flag at me?") that he considered un-American, Zanuck fiercely defended his director, and the line stayed in the picture.
But even while Fuller adhered to studio protocols, he still imposed his point of view, which often got him in trouble. There were, in fact, several opportunities to make The Big Red One, especially when John Wayne expressed interest, but Fuller stubbornly refused because he didn't think "The Duke" was right for the part. Years later he also turned down big career opportunities to direct The Young Lions and Patton. Fuller hated Patton for slapping a soldier who belonged to his outfit in Sicily, and could never forgive the late General for his role in the dismissal of 1st Division commander General Terry de la Mesa Allen.
The film that mattered most to Fuller though was Park Row, a love letter to the newspaper world, which Zanuck wouldn’t produce unless it was made as a musical. So, Fuller ended up producing it on his own. The film not only cost Fuller every penny he had, but it signaled the end of his relationship with Fox and Zanuck.
"Sam's practices were often too radical for Hollywood," said Rosenbaum. "And that’s why he wound up getting drummed out of the studio system after he lost the sponsorship of Darryl Zanuck (who protected him up to a point). He just couldn’t go on being a Hollywood director in the same way."
There were a few big-budget films which Fuller made for Warner Brothers, including Merrill's Marauders, but his most memorable films of the late 1950s and early 1960s were gutsy, lower-budget dramas: Shock Corridor, set in a psychiatric hospital, and The Naked Kiss, which told the story of a prostitute attempting to change her life by working in a hospital’s pediatric ward. Both films, which teetered on avant garde, endeared Fuller to an entire generation of independent filmmakers who were inspired by what could be achieved on a low budget.
“You can’t take humanity and originality away from a filmmaker," Christa Fuller said. “It’s enjoyable to look at films like The Avengers, which make lots of money for the studios, but we also need great story tellers and filmmakers. Sam was both.”
To his great satisfaction, Fuller eventually made The Big Red One in 1980. Kelly Ward, who still keeps in regular contact with the film’s other actors, remembers Fuller’s passion on set: "It was the one story he had to get on film and Sam, of course, was just a bundle of energy working on the picture he planned for decades—which began in WWII, in his notes, and then took shape after the war, through the ‘50s up until the time we made it.”
Fuller later moved to France after his film White Dog, a hard-hitting feature about racism, was considered inappropriate by executives and shelved by Paramount Pictures.
“Moving to France was very painful since [Sam] had fought every major European battle in WWII for his country,” Christa Fuller told us. “But he was appreciated in France where he got the Commandeur of Arts and Letters in France from the Minister of Culture.”
After years of self-imposed exile in France, Fuller returned to Los Angeles in the early nineties where he died at home of natural causes on October 30, 1997.
Samuel Fuller’s legacy lives on in his daughter Samantha, a filmmaker herself, now at work on a compelling and timely documentary about her father’s epic life experiences in the 20th century called A Fuller Life: The Story of a True American Maverick.
To view the trailer for Samantha Fuller’s film, click here.