Election Section

Castro Theater Screens Fuller’s Restored Masterwork By KEN BULLOCK

Special to the Planet
Friday December 10, 2004

“Film is like a battleground: Love. Hate. Action. Violence. In one word—Emotion.” 


Newsboy, copyboy, teenage crime reporter, pulp novelist, “dogface,” screenwriter, producer, director. By the time he ad-libbed his rejoinder to the question “What is cinema?” that Jean-Luc Godard fed Jean-Paul Belmondo to ask him in Pierrot Le Fou (1965), Samuel Fuller had lived—and lived through—all those careers. 

But he hadn’t yet realized his long-envisioned lifetime project, The Big Red One, meant to be the epic odyssey of the foot soldier in the U.S. First Infantry Division, fighting from North Africa to Sicily and Italy, from Normandy across France and Germany to the liberation of the concentration camp at Falkenau in Czechia. It was a journey that Fuller had experienced as an over-age (30-ish) WWII enlistee.  

Even the eventual release of The Big Red One in 1979 was a poor studio cut with narration, not his intended masterwork. That delayed “scoop” of life and death on the front lines—where the only victory, as Fuller said, is survival—is finally out in a reconstructed version, seven years after Fuller’s death at 85. It was destined for DVD, but is onscreen now at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre, today (Friday) through Wednesday, Dec. 15. 

Starring Lee Marvin as a middle-aged sergeant with a squad of very young “dogfaces” (Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine, Bobby Di Cicco, Kelly Ward) thrown into battle after battle, the reconstruction—by film critic Richard Schickel—restores almost 50 minutes (15 scenes, as well as 23 extensions and inserts) to achieve a running time of 2 hours, 43 minutes—and a coherence missing from the original release, making what’s left of the narration redundant. 

In a brilliant performance, Marvin plays a WWI veteran (“brutalized in one war and coming back for more in the next,” as Fuller put it), tough but vulnerable, brooding over what he’s already seen. He is attacked in no-man’s land by a shell-shocked horse (“A horse has as much right to go crazy as a man does”). He kills a German soldier in the smoke, only to discover later that the war’s ended and the German was trying to surrender. He shepherds his young flock from their first beachhead in North Africa as raw recruits through their education in survival, in the vanguard of great armies, “where all you see—if you’re lucky—is the guy to your left and the guy to your right.” 

There’s a paradoxical sense of intimacy in vast landscapes, many close-ups crowded with figures in action. Fuller’s celebrated wild mood swings are in evidence: Overcoming an ambush on the same ground where Marvin killed his man a quarter century before, the squad assists a young Frenchwoman giving birth in a gutted Panzer tank. A kind of surrealism as well: North African irregulars on horseback attacking a German tank in the ruins of a Roman amphitheater—elaborate choreography—then cutting off the ears of the fallen enemy.  

Earlier films rehearsed The Big Red One’s themes—the sergeant (Gene Evans), suspicious and guilty over his own survival, first surfaces from a pile of corpses in Steel Helmet (1951), Fuller’s first commercial hit, set in Korea. Run of the Arrow (1957) has Rod Steiger as yet another sergeant, but in the Confederate Army, shooting the last shot of the Civil War, then heading West to join an Indian nation, avoiding Union citizenship. 

Other films had his tormented soldiers seeing action in Indochina, post-war Germany—even as an army unit-turned-bank robbers in occupied Japan. In the late ‘50s, Fuller thought he had a deal for his pet project, with John Wayne as producer, starring as the sergeant. But unable to find his story’s hook, Fuller balked and the Duke withdrew. Later, when Fuller offered Marvin the part, he got his answer with a phonecall: “This is your sergeant reporting!” 

“This is fictional life, based on factual death.” What film critic Kent Jones perhaps understates as “the slightly fabulous aspect” in Fuller’s storytelling came naturally to a man who’d been copyboy to Hearst editor Arthur Brisbane in the ‘20s, a crime reporter at 16, riding the rails to cover Ku Klux Klan rallies, the “Hoovervilles” of Depression America, the General Strike in 1934 San Francisco. 

“How did you like the flavor I got in the picture?” he used to ask. But that piquant taste, all his own, has been often misunderstood. Fuller was portrayed as “primitive” (misconstruing Andrew Sarris’ praise of him as “an authentic American Primitive”—“Primitive” as in “the style of late Medieval painters”), “brutal,” “The Ugly American” (Pauline Kael), or by the terribly mistaken epithets “reactionary,” even “fascist.” 

Fuller was intensely admired by younger filmmakers. Steven Spielberg, whose ideas for the opening of Saving Private Ryan certainly came in part from observations on war films that Fuller, survivor of Omaha Beach, used to make. Martin Scorsese, who in the introduction to Fuller’s memoirs, A Third Face, wrote, “It’s been said that if you don’t like the Rolling Stones, then you just don’t like rock and roll. By the same token, I think that if you don’t like the films of Sam Fuller, then you just don’t like cinema. Or at least you don’t understand it.” 

Fuller in public would often play the hardboiled cynic with relish. But behind the act was an unusually open, responsive person. “Not the usual Hollywood director,” said author Jim Kitses, who teaches at San Francisco State University, “an exemplary human being.” 

The Castro showing of The Big Red One (following its premiere at Cannes, Scorsese’s New York Film Festival and at the Rafael Film Center during the Mill Valley Festival) is the last film programmed there by Berkeley resident Anita Monga, recently controversially dismissed after 16 years at the landmark moviehouse.  

When she was programming for the York on San Francisco’s 24th Street, Monga showed a double feature of Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1965), both then obscure films. I saw them, and was electrified, thinking that I had to meet Fuller. 

The opportunity came about a year later, in 1986, when he screened The Big Red One at Berkeley’s Pacific Film Archive. After the showing, a woman in the audience commented that it was the best “War Is Hell” movie she’d seen, but within a minute was shouting at Fuller, “Why have you not shown us the causes of war!”  

“Obviously, she’s never seen his other films!” somebody whispered. 

The audience was restive—but Fuller was almost courtly: “If I were to show all that, dear lady—politics, diplomacy, finance, the media—it would be such a long film, it’d never be released. And besides, all the politicians, diplomats, financiers, print and broadcast talent who’d see it have their excuse—that someone else would do what they had done if they hadn’t. Only an 18-year-old can’t make that excuse, it’s his life on the line. That’s why most films romanticize war as glorious—for the 18-year-olds.” 

Fuller continued, “When The Big Red One was screened privately for an audience of Pentagon officers, my old friend Patton, Jr. said afterwards, ‘To those of us who served in combat in the war, this is clearly the most authentic film about it. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to show it on a recruiting mission. No young person would sign up.’ I went up to the podium, shook his hand, and said, ‘George, that’s the best compliment my film could ever have—because that’s why I made it.”