A Book Review by Tony Williams.
During his lifetime, Samuel Fuller was fortunate enough to receive acclaim from monographs and articles dedicated to his films as well as continue working for as long as possible in film, unlike Buster Keaton and Douglas Sirk. Regardless of championship by Cahiers du Cinema, the Edinburgh 1969 Film Festival and works by Nicholas, Garnham, Phil Hardy, and others written during the high tide of auteurism, Fuller’s place in Cinema Studies would have appeared assured. However, despite ardent support by a devoted band of brothers in Hollywood and film critics as well as the relatively recent appearance of books by Lee Server, Lisa Dombrowski, and his posthumously published autobiography, A Third Face (2002), the powerful presence of this director is again in danger of slipping away from popular memory. As I’ve found in two recent classes, students have not even heard of Ford or Hawks, seen Citizen Kane, let alone even heard of Fuller and Sirk. This may be due to a director’s association with a particular critical school that often leads the subject to fall out of fashion when the once-novel approach becomes dated. This should not be the case especially when there is new material in the archives awaiting the light of day leading to both new revelations as well key associations with a never-ending dysfunctional human condition often manipulated and stimulated by nation states for devious political advantage. Such is the case of Film is Like a Battleground (Oxford University Press, 2017). It not only focuses on Fuller’s war movies but brings hitherto unknown archive material to light resulting in that rare combination of stimulating critical insights and very relevant excavation.
Since, in their wisdom, the publishers sent me an uncorrected proof version of this book rather than a review copy I will refrain from pointing out any typos, though I have found few in this version.
Portions of this book have previously appeared in reputable publications such as Film Quarterly; Historical Journal of Radio, Film, and Television; as well as the 2012 University of Wisconsin edited collection Film and Genocide. The introduction contains valuable archival material such as Fuller’s letters sent back home often accompanied by his characteristic cartoons, photos, and diary extracts revealing that “The roots of many of his movies, even his non-war films, reside in the pages of these diaries” (9). His poignant March 1944 Blue Book magazine story “Johnny Had a Little Lamb” that combines fiction reconstruction with documentary reveals the initial articulation of what would become key themes in his war films, namely “the tortuous relationship between human, emotional reactions (inspired by the trusting innocent animals) and the grim necessity of what must be done to win a war, all contained within a characters trying desperately to resolve this impossible paradox” (11). In this way, the book project becomes evident in its exploration of how “Fuller used the screen to ask questions about war in a fashion that is notably different from most of his contemporaries…In every war film he made Fuller also spoke to an array of domestic issues involving race, gender, nationalism, and politics…Fuller was determined to make films that, as much as was possible at the time, took stands on issues facing the United States at war and at peace, an impulse that often forced him into adversarial relationships with those in power in Hollywood as well as in Washington D.C.” (19).
Using archival sources in an admirable and penetrating manner, Gordon succeeds in this project by structuring the book in a circular manner with the following chapter exploring the director’s Falkenau movie, relating it to representations of the Holocaust, and linking it to one of his least understood films Verboten! (1960), and then ending with dealing with the very different type of representation necessitated by the passage of time and later directorial reconsideration in the concentration camp sequence of his cherished long-term project The Big Red One (1980). Gordon’s detailed researches into the Fuller archives often result in new discoveries such as The Steel Helmet’s foundation on entries in the director’s 1943 war diary (71-72). In terms of references to the Korean War one of the most welcome citations is to Bruce Cumings’s The Korean War: A History (2010) but his massive two volume History of the Korean War (1981/1990) should also have been consulted for his fascinatingly detailed documentation and often critical perspective on American involvement. This is particularly apt in terms of Gordon’s recognition of a similar perspective contained in one statement in Fixed Bayonets (1951) on pp. 106-107. Astute readings are made of the motivations in Pick Up on South Street (1953) and Hell and High Water (1954) that will later echo in the brief lines spoken by Christa Fuller as the veterinarian assistant in White Dog (1982) revealing the multi-critical facet of this director in many of his films that are never one-dimensional.
New discoveries await the reader, such as the reference to Fuller’s unproduced Vietnam War film The Rifle. But one also wonders whether the director may have been familiar with the war novels of James Jones since the concept of a weapon falling into different hands not only appears in the novella The Pistol (1958) but also echoes Anthony Mann’s Winchester ’73 (1950)? The quicksand episode in the screenplay may derive from a particular scene in Run of the Arrow (1957).
Verboten! receives a long overdue sophisticated reading concerning its use of concentration camp footage. Gordon addresses one sequence, in which she sees “the degree to which Fuller’s audience is here doubled: it is both Franz, whom Fuller clearly seeks to shock into ideological conversion within the narrative and his film’s audience” (187). In terms of its relevance to Fuller’s Falkenau experience and the different way he will render it later in The Big Red One, this chapter raises a very interesting insight into the complex role of spectatorship not ordinarily associated with the director.
Significantly, Gordon also notices the longevity of Fuller’s project seeing the beginnings of The Big Red One in 1943 (218, 226-227) before it finally reached the screen. Merrill’s Marauders (1962) along with the little-known 1959 CBS pilot Dogface (another first run for The Big Red One) also receives illuminating treatment. War is absurd and traumatic for everyone and Gordon draws attention to many merits in the first film that are often overlooked by critics:
Although all of Fuller’s war films address the idea of the kinds of community formed in the trenches, there is no other Fuller war film that contemplates so tenderly what it means to deal with combat loss, not the degree to which men serving together in war create their own quasi-familial relations. This, too, is a moment that reminds audiences of the basic and necessary humanity of these soldiers whose mission to fight and kill does not negate such core values and feelings. Merrill, with gentle castigation, reminds Stock at one point that in order to be able to write those letters he cannot become too close to his men. But this is the lie that Fuller’s films repeatedly dismantle as characters develop caring relationships for another living creature – child, animal, soldier – often at great emotional cost when that creature is lost in combat. (210)
One major reservation exists concerning this book. Although very well acquainted with the World War Two area, Gordon reveals a lack of acquaintance with the more diverse areas of Vietnam Studies. Gordon does not appear to realize that South Vietnam was no nation state but something created by the USA in violation of the 1954 Geneva Convention that was supposed to lead to free elections. The lack of historical knowledge in this area is disturbing especially the brief summary given on p.152 as well as Bruce Cumings’s suggestion in his two-volume study of the Korean War that the USA may have been involved in beginning the conflict via underhanded methods. While Gordon cites Jeremy Devine’s Vietnam at 24 Frames a Second (1995), she has not consulted the earlier co-edited collection Vietnam War Films (1994) that contained contributions by academics, feminists, and Vietnam War veterans covering an international perspective from 1939 to 1992. Had she done so she would have read an interesting entry by Renny Christopher on p.84 that also questions the supposedly affirmative climax to China Gate (1957). It also suggests the continuation, not erasure, of Brock’s (Gene Barry) racism, as well as criticizing the questionable desire of Lucky Legs (Angie Dickinson) to send her child to the United States in the first place. Lee Van Cleef’s Major Cham may be the real hero of the film in very much the same way as Takakura Ken’s Major Yamaguchi is the real hero of Robert Aldrich’s critically underestimated Too Late the Hero (1970). Despite his arrogance, unlike Brock, he is willing not only to adopt Lucky Legs’ bi-racial son but also act as a real father to him. Gordon often ignores ironical aspects that Fuller may have deliberately inserted into this film. Also, the real wave of Vietnam Film emerged in the Reagan era and not in the late 70s with blockbusters such as The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), and the now-dated Coming Home (1978) representing the first drops of an ideologically consuming waterfall. The Green Berets (1968) was not the only Vietnam War made during the period of the actual conflict. Had Gordon consulted Vietnam War Films she would have discovered from the painstaking work of all the contributors revealing that that many different generic treatments occurred allegorically in different Hollywood genres making the issue much more complex.
However, these issues are minor in comparison with the book’s achievement: reviewing Fuller’s legacy from another perspective to reveal its inherent humanity and relevance to an era in which we are again subject to the absurdity that Fuller earlier recognized. Now we are trapped in a circle of perpetual war that will claim many victims – civilians as well as the common foot soldiers of many nationalities.
Tony Williams is Professor and Area Head of Film Studies at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, Contributing Editor to Film international, author of James Jones: The Limits of Eternity (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), and co-editor with Esther Yau, of Hong Kong Neo-Noir (Edinburgh University Press, 2016).