Film Director Samuel Fuller often worked on the margins of Hollywood. His films were gritty and often violent, and intentionally avoided the big studio polish. Even when he worked at the studios, his films were not the A-list productions, yet he was able to work actors like Robert Stack, Barbara Stanwyck, Gene Barry, Rod Steiger, Robert Ryan and Richard Widmark in some of their most unforgettable roles.
Criterion Collection, the company providing releases of classic era films, called Samuel Fuller: “This singularly audacious B-movie visionary made purposefully crude, elegantly stripped-down films that laid bare the dark side of American culture.” He was at that.
A newspaper writer and a crime novelist, Fuller got a job writing film scripts after serving in World War II. He turned that opportunity into directing the stories he wrote. Fuller’s subjects were war, Westerns, corruption, interracial romance and the psychological twists explored in noir films of the post-war period. The underbelly of society is what Fuller found interesting and subjects for his films. Pretty heady stuff.
Fuller’s third film was the 1951 low-budget Korean War story, The Steel Helmet. This was a film about Korea while the Korean conflict was underway. Instead of trying to get big stars and budget, Fuller had other ideas. He hired the fine character actor Gene Evans to play his lead, Sergeant Zack, and kept the production values small to match his budget.
The opening scene is of Zack and other American prisoners who have been executed, except Zack did not die. Despite being shot in the head, the bullet made a big hole in his helmet, but caused him no damage, besides ruining his day. A Korean boy finds and helps Zack. As Zack searches for the American line, the boy badgers Zack into letting him tag along. Zack is grumpy and pissed off, and his bad attitude permeates the film.
The Steel Helmet is a very daring film, the characters talk like real people and the violence is not glossed over. Fuller also explores several elements of racism including the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. As a director, Fuller learned to be a very effective storyteller on a slim budget, he always stretched his money, never sacrificing dramatic storytelling by focusing on only what the camera could see. This would be a hallmark of his film style. Even in the final section of the film, when the Buddhist temple is under siege, the viewer never feels cheated, even with the use of stock war footage. Zack’s anger boils over after the Korean boy is killed, as he shoots and kills an enemy prisoner. There is nothing glamorous in Fuller’s storytelling, it can be unvarnished and grim, going for realism instead of stock Hollywood endings. For an investment of slightly more than $100,000 the film earned more than $2M at the box office.
The enemy prisoner tries to talk the medic into helping him, using America’s treatment of African-Americans, into betraying a country that treats him as second-class citizen.
Almost thirty years and many films later, Fuller returned from a self-imposed exile with one of his most personal films, The Big Red Red, which drew upon Fuller’s own experiences in the infantry during WWII. This is one of the best films about WWII.
Fuller hired Lee Marvin to play the unnamed Sergeant, a grizzled, but a less angry version of Gene Evans’ character from The Steel Helmet. Marvin’s character begins the film as a private in World War I, who kills a German solider after the cease fire has been announced, but the private is unaware of the news. The film then skips ahead to America’s entry in WWII, and the private is now a Sergeant, who has a group of young, new infantrymen that he must mold into soldiers. Marvin lent the film great credibility, not only an established action star, he served in this war. Unfortunately, Marvin looks every bit of his 56 years, and then some.
The Big Red One follows the Sergeant and his men from North Africa to Sicily to Omaha Beach and across Europe. The film had a $4M budget, but looks like it had much more money to work with. Fuller staged his battles economically and was able to convey scope without waste. His camera and editing make you believe there are huge battles going on, but he puts everything within the tight view of the camera and imagine the rest. His D-Day beach scene is believable with only one ship and a group of soldiers fighting, and dying, to get ashore as they are strafed and mortared with shells. He didn’t have the budget of Saving Private Ryan or The Longest Day, but it works. The film earned a modest profit, but established itself as a thoughtful and almost cerebral story of the impact of warfare on not only those fighting it, but the civilians impacted by it.
The film is divided into sections, the theaters of war, and episodes within each section. There are vignettes involving each of the four main young soldiers in the film, including Robert Carradine and Mark Hamill. There is not a lot of dialogue in the film, the action takes you into each scene and you are drawn in by the emotional subtext at the core of the story. This is really a thinking man’s war film. To aid in the flow of the story, Fuller has one of his soldiers provide narration that helps tie together the characters and dramatic flow, since the scope of the story is huge, and the action often shifts location. It is in the quiet moments that Fuller’s camera is revealing, letting the human drama play out. There are several episodes involving Marvin and children that will put a lump in your throat. Emphasizing his worn and aged appearance, Marvin was the perfect choice for this role. He is a man who has seen a lot and obviously learned a lot.
The powerful Marvin is very subdued, his three decades of acting go into a very measured performance. The mix of his experienced, war-weary veteran, and these young kids learning to be soldiers, is what makes the film work. These young soldiers hang on his leadership, which is pointed at times, but careful and appropriate.
This film is not The Great Escape or The Longest Day or The Battle of the Bulge or A Bridge Too Far. This little film substitutes internal conflict for large scale action sequences. It works, in part, because Fuller and Marvin lived it.