Sam Fuller's World War II
At this writing, a new World War II movie called "The Big Red One" is being trumpeted in full-page advertisements, singing the praises of filmmaker Samuel Fuller. According o the ads, he is a director of "punch and power" who has influenced a whole generation of moviemakers, from European aesthetes like Truffaut and Godard to such Hollywood wonder boys as Scorsese, Spielberg, and Bogdanovich.
For once, the ads have a point. In fact, Fuller is unique in Hollywood history. Since 1949, he has churned out a stream of war stories, westerns, and melodramas. Neither he nor his studios have harbored any illusions about where these pictures would end up -- in drive-ins, late-night TV shows, and Saturday-matinee double features. Yet within this low-budget framework, Fuller has established himself as the reigning genius of the form. Whole books have been written about him and such achievements as "I Shot Jesse James," "Pickup on South Street," "Fixed Bayonets," and "Shock Corridor."
Recently he visited New York to talk about his newest movie, "The Big Red One ," starring Lee Marvin and Mark Hamill, which received favorable notices at this year's Cannes Film Festival. According to Fuller, it is based on his own experiences as a soldier in North Africa, Sicily, Omaha Beach, and other scenes of conflict during the World War II.
I conducted this interview before the release of "The Big Red One." The film turns out to be more violent than Fuller's own description would imply, including a couple of episodes that, however brief, are patently offensive and may sour many viewers against the picture as a whole. Nonetheless, the violence and vulgarities are kept within PG limits, unlike such blockbuster war epics as "Apocalypse Now" and "The Deer Hunter." Fuller began his career as a newspaper man, and his films have always had a tabloid style -- terse, direct, cheerfully inconsistent, and energetic to the point of craziness. His lastest is no exception.
Your war movies often have a certain intimacy. That is, they concentrate on the actual experiences of soldiers in the field. A picture like "The Steel Helmet" gives us more insight into the characters that an expensive epic like "Apocalypse Now."m
I'm glad you said that. I hope you care about my characters. That's what I wanted to accomplish in "The Big Red One." Also, I wanted very badly to surprise you by showing you that the heroes all survive the war, and they're all alive at the end of the story.
That is a bit unusual. Today's pictures often prefer may-hem to survival.m
Not everyone survives. But the heroes are men with the kind of experience you need to get through a war. I could have emphasized the newer soldiers who don't survive -- that would have been good moviemaking, what they call "sophisticated." But it would have been dishonest.
What was your aim in filming "The Big Red One"?m
I wanted to present an accurate vision of what the war was like. That's why the picture as a whole is not very violent. The drama of war is not in the fighting. It's an emotional thing. And the emotion can be very intense, because you have to be insane to squeeze a trigger at another human being. It's abnormal to kill -- I don't care what anybody says.
But the fascinating thing is, the men don't show their emotion. That's one way they keep from going crazy. Originally, I wanted no emotion in the movie at all -- no big scenes of What are we doing here? What are we fighting for? What price glory? The lack of that emotion ism the emotion of the film. These men don't worrym about any of the important things, because it wouldn't do any good. They may worry about where their next meal is coming from, or who's gonna replace them. But they never worry about surviving.
In many recent films about war, the directors have lavished a lot of care on the ugliest details of combat.m
Not me. I tried my best to stage it so the fighting is brief. The effect doesn't come from a shell going off, or a lot of ketchup all over the place. The effect comes from the unity of four men who you get to know and like. Because it's a war story, you expect them to be killed at some point. But actually they are symbols of the higherm percentage of men who survive.
It's an upbeat picture, then?m
Sure. You have to be upbeat to survive.
So "Realistic" might be the best word to describe the story.m
Yes. You see, everybody in a war acts to save himself. That's why the camaraderie in a unit isn't really camaraderie -- it's just honesty. This has nothing to do with military-school discipline. When I was a soldier, we didn't wear ties or salute or march or parade or any of that. We were a work force, and our one objective was to survive. And if someone did get hurt, we never got nervous or upset.Instead, you'd rib the person to make him laugh and smile.Not for psychological reasons, but for naturalm reasons.
"The Big Red One" is very autobiographical, then?m
Yes, like many of my other pictures. The title comes from my division, the First Infantry Division -- our shoulder patch was a big red "1." And the four heroes are composites. There's even a kid called Zab who's about 20 percent like me, though he also embodies other people I knew. And the story tells about legitimate things that really happened.
You know, I turned down the chance to make a picture from Leon Uris's "Battle Cry." I felt it was a textbook rather than a story -- and anyway, I didn't know the Pacific well enough, and I didn't know the patois they used in those jungle units. I also turned down Irwin Shaw's "The Young Lions." I would have enjoyed meeting Brando and Clift -- they're heavyweights -- but I had a reason for avoiding those projects: I didn't want anything from my script for "The Big Red One," good or bad, to filter into those stories. It's not because I treasure my writing so much. It's just that my story is full of anecdotes that are accurate , except when I change them geographically or blend a couple.
Children often pop up in your movies, even in unlikely stories like "The Steel Helmet" and "The Naked Kiss."m
It's realistic. You do find kids in wartime villages, as well as animals. We had a kitten in Sicily that we called Eyedrop. We put him in a drinking cup -- my drinking cup -- and the medic gave us an eyedropper, and we made powdered milk and fed it. Why not have kids and animals in a war picture? It's honest.
You've been emphasizing the positive values in your new picture. Yet some critics feel your moives have become more pessimistic in recent years. And "The Big Red One" is a war story, so a certain amount of misery is almost inevitable, isn't it?m
"The Big Red One" is a story that called for more optimistic conclusions. As for the other pictures, it depends how you look at them. And it depends on the story. When I wrote "The Steel Helmet," leftists called me a fascist reactionary, and rightists called me a commie. But I don't care. I'm just interested in my characters, though I don't necessarily share their ideas or feelings. And the same goes for mood. It has nothing to do with optimism or pessimism, or wanting upbeat or downbeat endings. It all depends on the elements available to the story.
How about a movie like "Shock Corridor," which presents a microcosm of American ills during the 1950s? When the hero confronts these issues, he manages to solve the problem at hand, but goes insane in the process.m
I wasn't pessimistic in that picture. I was angrym that in this century we have not progressed, but have regressed instead. When you reach a point where it's an issue whether a black student goes to a Southern university -- it's clear we've gone backward about 5,000 years. These are problems we Americans should not hide, should not be proud or ashamed of. Rather, we should recognize and dramatize them. And that's a lot more interesting than stories about boys and girls who go dancing in a disco. I have nothing against those movies, but to me they're a waste of time, money, and film.
In your films, the underlying attitude is always the important thing, isn't it?m
I don't care about people dancing in discos. I dom care about a white child being taught to sneer at blacks. To the child it's just a game; it doesn't know what it's doing. But the Hitler Youth didn't know, either! Life is a struggle -- man and woman, husband and wife, employer and employee. This struggle has nothing to do with shooting, but it's what movies are all about. That's what I'm after in my pictures -- to dramatize these stories in an honest way.