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 THE ANNIVERSARY EDITION
YEAR SIX BEGINS

 JOHN STANLEY
CO-FOUNDER
WITH US FROM YEAR ONE

 

 SAMUEL FULLER'S DREAM

 Director Samuel Fuller
with his ever-present cigar
in his glory days.

 

He wanted to make the
greatest war film ever

By JOHN STANLEY
of TheColumnists.com



Samuel Fuller slapped me across the face the first time in 1951. I was 11, in a theater watching "The Steel Helmet," a depiction of the Korean War that Fuller had written-produced-directed for low-budget producer Robert L. Lippert.

The slap came when grizzled, battle-wise Sergeant Zack, played by then screen newcomer Gene Evans, turned his Thomas submachine-gun on a Chinese major and triggered a burst of .45 slugs into his stomach.

As the unarmed prisoner of war twisted in pain on the floor of a Buddhist temple, I went into a state of cinematic shock. I thought I had been educated about these things: My father, severely wounded on Luzon during World War II by taking three Japanese machine-gun bullets into his chin and chest, had already told me the horrors of that campaign, how young Japanese soldiers had fled from their foxholes and he had fired into their backs. But that was war, he had explained. It was them or us.

Now, watching "The Steel Helmet," I suddenly realized I didn’t know anything about war.

I watched this major dying at the hands of a U.S. soldier and couldn’t believe it. Yeah, okay, only moments before a Korean orphan kid nicknamed Shortround (and a companion of Zack’s) had been mercilessly gunned down by a North Korean sniper and this despicable Chinese had said nasty things about the lad, spitting on a prayer sheet written by the youth.

So Fuller was trying to justify the shooting. Even so, the scene became indelibly ingrained in my imagination, including a later sequence in which Zack, hollow-eyed with what combat veterans call "the thousand-yard look," becomes shell-shocked and mentally destroyed. (Is this the price, I asked myself, that one pays for shooting down an unarmed man?)

Fuller gave me my second slap across the face in 1957. I was used to seeing genre Western movies, but not a film like his "Run of the Arrow."

Rod Steiger, portraying a Southern rebel named O’Meara, fires the last shot of the Civil War at the battle of Appomatox, and prepares to assassinate General Ulysses S. Grant at the peace signing. The only thing that stops him is a field doctor who tells O’Meara he had better shoot Lee, too, or "the shame of it will kill him."

O’Meara, refusing to accept the Union government, denounces the United States of America and joins a tribe of Sioux Indians, living as a man without a country who continues to hate all Yankees. I had never been exposed to such disturbing ideas before in a movie, and I knew that one day I had to meet this remarkable movie-maker who had opened my eyes to so many complicated and troubling things about life. I was just beginning to learn about the power of movies.

And I was learning all I could about this maverick movie maker who had early in life worked as an investigative journalist for the New York Graphic, being the first to break the story about the suicide of actress Jeanne Eagels. He had worked on Park Row with such famous journalism figures as Arthur Brisbane (Fuller was his copyboy at age 16) and Gene Fowler. He had grown up in a world of "yellow journalism" complete with shock headlines–and shock was a trait he would carry over to his movies.

Fuller had also worked at my newspaper, the San Francisco Chronicle, where I had begun in 1960 as a copyboy and where I had worked my way up through the ranks to become one of its busiest entertainment writers. In 1934, under editor George Cameron, Sammy had covered the General Strike that included a riot at the Ferry Building and looting all over the city. Because we shared something in common, I felt an unusual affinity even though we had never met.

I learned still more about Sammy: After a few years in Hollywood writing low-budget, inconsequential movie scripts, he had fought with the 16th Infantry Regiment of the First Infantry Division (nicknamed the Big Red One after the shape of its shoulder patch) all the way from North Africa to Sicily to Normandy. He was at Omaha Beach on D-Day, in the thick of the worst of the fighting. Then he had fought his way across Europe and finally helped in the liberation of Falkenau concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, taking 16mm footage of the Nazi atrocities that would later be used in documentaries. (He carried a movie camera in his backpack all the way through the war.)

At war’s end, scathed more mentally than physically, Sammy had a Purple Heart, a Silver Star for taking part in the battle for Omaha Beach, and a Bronze Star for capturing a unit of Germans on D-Day in Sicily.

He had returned to Hollywood to become a powerful and influential independent producer in the early post-war years, breaking through in 1949 with "I Shot Jesse James," a psychological Western starring John Ireland, and "The Steel Helmet," the 1950 release that earned him his first million.

He followed those with "Park Avenue," his own independent production about the history of New York journalism, fand managed to lose the million he had earned from "Helmet." Next was "Fixed Bayonets," another gritty slice-of-Korean-war that ranked with "Helmet" for stark realism. He made "Bayonets" at 20th Century-Fox, where Darryl Zanuck turned him into one busy director for the next six years directing such classics as "House of Bamboo" and "Pickup on South Street."

Fuller became notorious for wearing a Western hat on the set and firing a pistol into the air instead of shouting "Action." He never cried "Cut." His phrase at the end of a take he liked was "Forget It."

With all this fascinating history of a movie maverick in mind, I finally had a chance in 1962 to write an advance piece for the Chronicle about a realistic, hardboiled Fuller war movie, "Merrill’s Marauders," a Cinemascope depiction of American soldiers fighting in the jungles of Burma with Jeff Chandler leading the bedraggled, under-supplied troops.

It was more of a jolt to my stomach than a slap across my face when, two weeks later, I received an envelope bearing the logo of "Globe Enterprises." I knew that was Fuller’s Columbia-based company through which he had made "Verboten" (G.I.s fighting Nazi Werewolves in post-war Germany) and "The Crimson Kimono" (Japanese and Caucasian detectives putting aside differences to solve the murder of a stripper). Inside was a letter from Fuller, thanking me for writing so honestly about his attempt to portray the horrors of war.

"I’ve made copies of your column and I’m sending them to all the living and hospitalized of the first U.S. Infantry Division," he wrote. "They will appreciate as much as I did your coverage and taste."

And then Fuller invited me to meet him. It was another full year before that meeting occurred, but it is as indelibly etched now as that initial "Steel Helmet" screening.

The words on the doormat to Fuller’s home in a quiet residential area of Hollywood set the iconoclastic tone: "Go Away." The man with graying hair who answered the door was wearing only a pair of silk shorts with a cigar thrust between his teeth. It was a hot summer Sunday morning and Fuller stood in the doorway, a squat figure with beady, suspicious eyes. But gradually those eyes began to sparkle and a boisterous manner emerged as he welcomed me into what I knew was going to be no ordinary world.

Strange bedfellows? That's
a boyish John Stanley with
suit & tie, Sam Fuller with
the pipe and silent screen
star Betty Bronson.

 

The first thing I learned: He had a vocabulary exclusively his. He hadn’t been a soldier, he’d been a "dogface." Dogfaces didn’t wear helmets, they wore "steel hats." A dogface didn’t "haul equipment," he "jackassed equipment." A dogface didn’t walk, he "beetle-crushed." He didn’t write scripts, he wrote "yarns." And all the fools and idiot producers in his world were "bananaheads."

Visions of warfare would always be at the center of Samuel Fuller’s world, and war was the topic that morning as he continually switched from cigar to pipe, which he was forever relighting. War flowed through Sammy’s veins like blood. The art of killing men for a cause was always at the forefront of his mind. He had "bellied" across the beaches of North Africa ("I watched the French Vichis mow down our guys that first night–and we had hoped the French would be our allies") and he had seen the intestines and severed arms and legs of men scattered all over Omaha Beach.

"You couldn’t walk without stepping on someone or part of someone," he said. "Pools of blood were everywhere. I had to run across that open beach twice. They gave me the Silver Star but I still don’t know how I survived. I’d just made it across the beach and was burrowed behind a sand dune when I was ordered to take a message to Colonel Taylor, my commanding officer. I ran back across the beach thinking if I ran really fast, maybe I could outrun the bullets. Lead was flying all around me, shells were going off. I tripped and fell on my face and there in the sand in front of me was a half-burnt cigar. I knew the Colonel smoked cigars, so I glanced over to see him hunkered down a few feet away. I gave him the message and he told me to go back to my sergeant. So I went through the running thing again. I made it but it was tough.

"Kasserine Pass was just as tough. Hurtgen Forest in Germany was tougher. The Bulge was more damaging."

And somehow the fighting corporal had lived through it all, with a 16mm movie camera in his backpack to record the worst highpoints of a world war.

"War," Sam told me, "is a natural state of survival for animals. It shouldn’t be natural for men. And yet there’s a law of war by which man lives. In the methods with which we fight, we are lower than animals. We show more hate and brutality than animals. Man is the only species who creates destructive weapons to destroy himself. No other species is capable of that. In all my war movies, I wanted to show the intense hate man reveals during war. It’s the darkest, most insane time, and yet we attach values to war: Honor, country, heroism."

War, he continued, "fills me with passion. Death is the most important emotion. Is there any other subject that surpasses death? But war has not been accurately depicted in the movies. The screen has hardly ever shown how a man is really killed. It isn’t pretty. It’s too grim for an audience to see. Producers won’t allow you to show these things. I’ve wanted to show them graphically, but there is just so far you can go. And then they beat you down. I do try to leave my soldiers dirty, tired and unshaven. Without women around. Battle-weary, spiritually destroyed. That’s one kind of aftermath I’m allowed to show. The flotsam of war is my specialty."

Then Sam started talking about "The Big Red One," a dream that would ultimately consume much of his life. "In 1958 I thought I had John Wayne for $750,000, which would have set a new record for a movie salary. Wayne took the script to Warners–a deal was cut. I made a trip across Europe, revisiting the old battle sites. I decided to show three amphibious assaults plus how we learned what not to do when we touched down in face of enemy-beach frontal fire. Then vignettes of combat in seven countries. Seven battles. Are you with me, lad? The first shot to the last. But then some bananaheads got involved."

The deal at Warner Bros. studio had fallen through. And now the script for "The Big Red One" reposed in a locked safe in Fuller’s library, a room filled with hundreds of books of all kinds. Also in the safe was Sam’s novelized version of the movie. He went to the safe and unlocked it. As if he was handling an artifact worth millions of dollars, he carefully took out the thick film script. Opened it reverently to the first page.

"Sit down, my boy. This is how it begins. A dogface lost in no-man’s-land, and a shell-shocked horse trapped with him. And what happens when man becomes as shell-shocked as an animal? Are you listening?"

In the middle of his front room, Sam became the maddened horse and also portrayed the wandering G.I. [who would have dreamed that wandering dogface would be played by Lee Marvin]. Sam acted out their collision in the nightmarish landscape of war, one moment the horse, the next the G.I., each dodging the other. He spent the next hour acting out other scenes about a rifle squad blowing a hole in German lines on Omaha Beach with bangalore torpedoes. A description of the ticking watches on the arms of dead men in the surf and sand to indicate passage of time. A description of water red with blood. And then the teasers: "Wait until you find out what’s waiting for the men at the Siegfried Line. And what happens when the people in a mental ward take over the ward when it’s blasted by war. Now who’s the crazier: The dogface or the madman? Would you like to know who the last casualty of World War II was? What about the girl with the flower? Well, you gotta see my picture, lad."

 

 At left, the ad for
Fuller's first great
war film, 'The Steel
Helmet.' At right,
the ad for his
flawed masterpiece,
'The Big Red One,'
now being re-issued
as a director's cut.

 


A few months later Sammy invited me to a private screening of his yet-unreleased "Shock Corridor," about a newspaperman posing as a schizophrenic to find a murderer in an insane asylum. And then I would spend two unforgettable days at his side at Samuel Goldwyn Studios as he directed scenes for "The Naked Kiss," today considered one of his cult classics.

I saw a tough, volatile side to Sam that had not otherwise surfaced during our meetings. Any of the vulnerabilities he had shown us during private moments were now gone. He argued venomously with his producer Leon Fromkess about keeping the original title of his picture, "The Steel Kiss." But he lost when Fromkess decided "steel" made it sound too much like a swashbuckler. And I saw Sammy fire two crew members on the spot for "poor performance." One afternoon he shouted at spectators on the set, "Keep quiet! Your dialogue is not earth-shaking."

Even at the time I wondered how "Naked Kiss" would be accepted, as one of its characters was a pedophile and another was a prostitute–in one scene with a shaved head. These then-taboo themes were definitely ahead of their time because with the film’s release Fuller fell out of favor with the Hollywood power structure. His contract with Fromkess for more pictures was cancelled. Suddenly he could not get financing for any project.

Released in 1964 indifferently as a lower-berth feature, "The Naked Kiss" turned Fuller into a pariah in his own land. He would not make another film until 1970, "Shark," and then that was shot largely in Mexico with Burt Reynolds. He would never again find a real place in the film community. He finally sold the Hollywood home and moved to Paris after marrying French actress Christa Lange.

For nearly 15 years I thought Sam was but a distant figure in my past when suddenly, in the summer of 1980, a Bantam paperback entitled "The Big Red One" arrived, inscribed: "To John: A Blood, Ink, Film Survivor."

He was temporarily living in Hollywood and I got on the phone with him to learn that "The Big Red One" had finally been championed by Peter Bogdanovich, who had brought Gene Corman (brother of Roger Corman) in to produce for Lorimar. He had spent several months in Israel filming that thick script he had taken out of the safe that Sunday so long ago. And with a cast he was ecstatic about: Lee Marvin as the squad leader, Mark Hamill (a hot new figure after playing Luke Skywalker in "Star Wars"), Robert Carradine, Bobby Di Cicco and Kelly Ward as young dogfaces.

But, he told me in a strained voice, after completing a three-hour cut to his personal satisfaction, the producers at Lorimar had wrested the project away from him and edited out major parts that Sam felt the film needed for cohesiveness. For emotional content. As he told me of his mixed feelings of success and defeat, there came a long sigh over the phone, as one who had to accept the inevitable. At least, I told him, the film was made. That didn’t seem to make him any happier.

And so "The Big Red One" opened a few months later to acceptable though not great box office. I was happy to see Sam succeed but felt that the epic he had intended was not quite there. A lot of that emotional business he had mentioned on the phone wasn’t there. There were powerful moments but overall the film fell short of being the ultimate Sam Fuller movie. For me, "The Steel Helmet" and "Run of the Arrow" remained his defining films. Lorimar, the producing company, soon after went bankrupt and the rights to "The Big Red One" went to Warner Bros, who released it to TV, VHS and DVD, though with lukewarm returns.

Sam was to make one more film in Hollywood, "White Dog," but it was too racially controversial (dog is trained to attack only blacks) to find wide release in 1982 and disappeared into the Bottomless Pit of Lost Films. Dejected about Hollywood for the last time, he returned to Paris to write his autobiography, "A Third Face." Following a heart attack, his wife Christa brought him back to Hollywood and there he died on Oct. 30, 1997, at the age of 85. (His book was published by Knopf as a hardcover in 2002 and is now available in paperback).

Just the other evening I was walking out of the Castro Theater, one of the few movie palaces still remaining in San Francisco, and was slapped across the face one more time by Samuel Fuller. I was stunned to see a one-sheet in a display window proclaiming "The New 35mm Re-Construction" of "The Big Red One." Including "50 Minutes of Added Footage." My mouth was open for a moment. Had someone finally put Sammy’s movie back together? The way he had wanted it?

Perhaps. The restoration had been spearheaded by film critic Richard Schickel after the discovery of an estimated 70,000 feet of camera negative and 112 rolls of on-location sound at Warner Bros. He also found Sammy’s working script (all but two sequences could be accounted for in the newfound footage).

The new version features 15 brand-new sequences. Among them, a battle between a German tank and French soldiers on horses, and a sequence in which a Sicilian girl is shot to death by a sniper while in the arms of Lee Marvin. And Sam is now in the film as a combat cameraman. Also, the Omaha Beach battle, the one that had brought Sammy the Silver Star, has been fleshed out.

"What was a pretty decent war movie," Schickel has written, "is now a true Sam Fuller movie, full of that tabloid absurdity–sudden death and sudden laughter wildly mixed–that was his trademark. And his glory." The new version will be playing in select theaters in the cities before it goes to DVD and video.

I’m planning to see the reconstructed "The Big Red One" when it opens. I want to have one last slap across the face from Sammy Fuller. If it happens, it will come at the moment when I’m watching and realize this is the way he had wanted his dream project to be seen.

©2004 by John Stanley. The photos are from the author's private collection.

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