Fixed Bayonets! (1951)
By Tony Williams.
Viewers should gain plenty from seeing Fuller’s majestic visual style and hearing his inimitable dialogue in this special collection.”
Eureka’s distinctive series has made a very worthy addition to their acclaimed series with five films by the great Samuel Fuller whose significance appears on two relevant quotes on the box set: “A film is like a battleground. It’s love, hate, action, violence, death – in one word, emotions.” Any serious student of cinema would know this line from Godard’s Pierrot le Fou (1965) with its director’s well-known cameo appearance. Another quote follows – “If you don’t like the films of Samuel Fuller, then you just don’t like cinema” (Martin Scorsese). Scorsese’s line evokes similar sentiments evoked by Robin Wood on one of his rare video appearances promoting Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964). These two quotes are significant in several ways. They articulate both the distinctive quality of Fuller’s films and their cinematic excellence. Yet, though Wood never said anything similar concerning Fuller, my only memory being his gently articulated “This man has the crudest sensibility ever expressed in cinema.” One misses the type of critical defense of Fuller’s work on the DVD features that approach Wood’s pioneering work on Hitchcock.
The quality of reproduction for these five films – Fixed Bayonets! (1951), Pick-Up on South Street (1953), Hell and High Water (1954), House of Bamboo (1955), and Forty Guns (1958) – are second to none. Eureka deserve congratulations on the quality of their restorations and their version of Hell and High Water in full color and cinemascope makes one appreciate the visual qualities of this otherwise lesser film all the more. They are well worth the cost of this collection on their own. Yet, when we consider today that several university film departments are now rejecting the value of past achievements in favor of the ephemeral and “popular” to counter declining enrollments that may already be irreversible in the Humanities failing in their supposed mission to introduce students to past artistic achievements then the situation takes on a more ominous overtone. Today, basic cinephilia and the opportunities audio-commentaries and features offer as educational access in understanding the significance of certain films is all the more important. Sadly, this box-set offers some mixed opportunities that reveal the lack of critical analysis and close reading offered by F.R. Leavis in Scrutiny and Robin Wood in his critical work to assess the quality of particular films and engage in the important pursuit of evaluation, which is often sadly lacking in most of today’s criticism. If Leavis envisaged an informed readership both inside and outside the university, then the cultivation of outside viewers free from the arbitrary choices and decisions of university administrators who do not have the best interests of real education at heart is even more important today.
Not everyone falls short in this goal. Adrian Martin provides an excellent audio-commentary to Fixed Bayonets that reveals his acknowledged expertise as a film critic in not only commenting on the historical, stylistic, and political context of Fuller’s film but also revealing his deep knowledge of past fuller criticism and sharing important insights with us, whether from Manny Farber and Phil Hardy. Listening to his commentary is a highly rewarding experience in itself. Yet, one issue involves evaluation, especially in the comparison between Fuller’s treatment of death in Fixed Bayonets! and Howard Hawks in Only Angels Have Wings (1939). Here both Martin and Kent Jones, in his meandering 30-minute interview feature from March 3, 2015 on the Pick-up on South Street disc, imply a qualitative distinction between both director’s treatments that see Hawks lacking as opposed to Fuller. In defense, it is necessary to state that the contexts of both treatments are important and the differences need both elaboration and recognition. A battlefield death is different from that of Joe in Angels and the emphasis on the steak (actually brief in Hawks’ film) has its own particular significance within the authorial context that Hawks gives it. Evaluation and recognition of difference are important here and the impression of this comparison exudes an aura of superficiality rather than the detailed examination necessary to understand the significance of the treatment in the different contexts. Both directors who have equal claims for a more critical form of balanced evaluation.
Both Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman, as well as Alain Silver and James Ursini, avoid such traps in their different audio-commentaries on House of Bamboo. Kirgo and Redman’s recent addition provides their usual professional expertise in this particular area, though Kirgo errs in mentioning Joan Bennett as the heroine of Pick-Up on South Street rather than Jean Peters. Notable noir experts Silver and Ursini provide material available on previous single DVD editions of the film, but no reissue would be complete without their expert knowledge.
However, the film most in need of critical interrogation is Hell and High Water, one that neither Fuller nor most of his critics rated highly. The unknown Northern English Scott Harrison (whom I’ve never heard of before) is credited on the DVD box as an author of this commentary. It is one of the worst DVD commentaries I have ever had the misfortune to endure. Not only does Harrison constantly mispronounce Bosley Crowther’s name but also he fails to address the aesthetic qualities of each scene (something Adrian Martin does superbly in his contribution to Fixed Bayonets!) but inserts irrelevant asides about his early seaside holidays with his parents as well as irrelevant unproven assertions of Fuller’s influence on Spielberg and Tarantino. Assuming such influences are there, a detailed description of the nature of each particular Fuller particular influence becomes necessary, as well as how directors used them, rather than the blanket assertions made here. If anything, this commentary shows the necessity of appropriate cinematic critical training needed for such a task in addition to its illustration of Howard Hawks’s difference between an amateur and a real professional. Could not another qualified Fuller critic have been found for this important task, such as Lee Server and Lisa Dombrowski? I am sure Fuller’s daughter, Samantha (the director of A Fuller Life) with her insightful artistic critical abilities, would be another appropriate choice.
Another problem that occurs on this set is using Samuel Fuller’s’ 1969 audio interview at the National Film Theatre on the same visual track as Forty Guns. That film is distinctive in its own right and the interview needed to be placed in a separate audio-only section since its placement distracts both from really appreciating the dynamic qualities of this masterpiece as well as fully appreciating the detailed Fuller interview itself. (1) In fact, Sam’s films and the man himself often provide welcome access to his work, as the well-informed 24-minute interview with French film critic Francois Guerif reveals as well as the fascinating extract of the director at the editing table running segments of Pick-up that appears in another French TV 12 minute interview with him. If only we could have sat with him at an editing table and listened to his exciting, informed, and original comments on his films pointing out elements we would ordinarily neglect. The same holds true for the inclusion of Samantha Fuller’s remarkable feature-length documentary on her late father, A Fuller Life, funded by Kickstarter and reviewed elsewhere on this site. (2) Complementing the Fuller material in terms of quality is the 27-minute video essay by David Cairns, Fuller at Fox, that he also scripted. It is an exemplary contribution fully attuned to the director’s distinctive sound and visual qualities employed in all these selected films accessible, educational, and informative introducing any new viewer into Fuller’s unique achievements. If only Eureka had asked David Cairns to do the audio-commentary of Hell and High Water as well as the other films outside of Fixed Bayonets! this set would have been a real treasure chest of informed criticism. He also deserves congratulations for asking Samantha to voice her father’s words from his autobiography A Third Face (2002). This creative experiment really works. (3)
Jean-Louis Leutrat provides a stimulating treatment of Forty Guns. He not only notes the contrast between fantastic invention within the genre as well as documentary fidelity concerning certain sets and characters but also provides some stimulating material to provoke further discussion. One of these involves the question of tradition. Many great talents never suffer from Harold Bloom’s definition of “The Anxiety of Influence”. (4) Instead, they take precedents and creatively rework them in a manner far different from Quentin Tarantino’s tired practices of mere quoting. Leutrat draws attention to a previous Western made before Forty Guns, The Maverick Queen (1956) starring Barbara Stanwyck and Barry Sullivan in which the heroine dies at the end as an influence on Fuller’s later work. It is possible that Fuller saw this work but if he did, what is remarkable are less the parallels but more the different way Fuller reworked them. Neither director Joseph Kane nor the original source novel by Zane Grey come even close to Fuller’s conception. Here the question is less the source. It is more how the director creatively transcends previous material and gives a clichéd story a new resonance, assuming he knew the previous film in the first place. Unless, an influence is definitely there critics should focus less on “referetis” but more on how a development is unique in the first place in terms of its creative and evaluative potentials. (5) Another reference I’ve not seen any critic take up so far is the relationship between Forty Guns and John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946). Since both directors were friends it is more likely that Fuller had seen Ford’s films at some time. However, here the issue is not one of mere copying but how a creative director uses the influence of a predecessor to develop in his own way. One doubts this is the case with The Maverick Queen. (6)
Leutrat also displays an 1876 photo of Earp and Bat Masterson in his video essay recognizing another real-life background detail in Fuller’s screenplay for Forty Guns. In many ways, the film is a creative reworking of not only My Darling Clementine but also those many films using the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral in fictional reconstructions. (7) The Bonell brothers are clearly modelled on the Earps but Fuller reworks both previous fictional and cinematic reconstructions in a new and creative manner so that his version operates in an entirely different and original manner. He actually makes an Earp Western omitting the famous gunfight but also inserting other features such as the strong heroines Barbara Stanwyck portrayed in previous westerns to end at an unthinkable climax, the hero killing the heroine until the studio insisted upon a different ending. In his first confrontation with Brockie (John Ericson), Griff Bonell (Barry Sullivan) uses Earp’s well-known method of clubbing his opponent with a pistol to avoid killing him. However, in their second confrontation, Griff uses the tactics employed by Earp in the gunfight at the O.K. Corral incident that led to a charge of murder from which he was acquitted. Wes (Gene Barry) dies at a different time and manner than Morgan Earp. Likewise, younger brother Chico (Robert Dix) does not die like Tim Holt’s Virgil in My Darling Clementine but survives to take on the role of town law enforcer that Griff and Wes attempted in vain to dissuade him. In short, the background components Fuller reworked for his version as less important than the creative reconstruction Fuller made. It is now time for “spot the reference” to take second place to more important issues of evaluation in film criticism especially in evaluating the creative contributions of a major director such as Fuller.
A 99-page booklet accompanies this set, containing photos and key essays. They include Glenn Kenny on Fixed Bayonets (2015), Pick-Up by Murielle Joudet (2015, Hell and High Water by Philip Kemp (2019), House of Bamboo and China Gate (a notable absence from this set) by Richard Corliss (2019), and essays by Amy Simmons (2019), Murielle Joudet (2015) and Godard’s 1957 Cahiers du Cinema article on Forty Guns. All are juxtaposed with selective extracts from Fuller’s autobiography where the man himself comments on the work. If only some of these had been asked to supply audio-commentaries, especially to avoid the disappointing contribution by Scott Harrison on Hell and High Water.
However, Fuller transcends any defects in this box collection and viewers should gain plenty from seeing his majestic visual style and hearing his inimitable dialogue in this special collection.
1. For one such appreciation, see http://sensesofcinema.com/2005/cteq/forty_guns/.
4. Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.
5. For some recent studies of evaluation see Valuing Films: Shifting Perception of Worth. Ed. Laura Hubner. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011; Andrew Klevan, Aesthetic Evaluation and Film. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2018.
7. See the following for a basic catalog involving the original incident and its fictional representations. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunfight_at_the_O.K._Corral#Film_and_television.
Tony Williams is an independent critic and a Contributing Editor to Film International.