Reading Sam Fuller's utterly charming autobiography is like sitting down for a shot of vodka and a long afternoon of reminiscences from the coolest grandfather anyone ever had. Born in 1912, Fuller was a teenaged crime reporter in New York during the heyday of tabloid journalism, lovingly immortalized in his 1952 movie "Park Row."
Reading Sam Fuller’s utterly charming autobiography is like sitting down for a shot of vodka and a long afternoon of reminiscences from the coolest grandfather anyone ever had. Born in 1912, Fuller was a teenaged crime reporter in New York during the heyday of tabloid journalism, lovingly immortalized in his 1952 movie “Park Row.” He hung around speakeasies with Ring Lardner and Damon Runyan when he wasn’t rubbing shoulders with the petty criminals whose hardboiled ethos he would unflinchingly portray in such films as “Pickup on South Street.” The defining experience of his early life was service in the U.S. infantry’s most famous division, though it would take him 35 years to get financing for “The Big Red One,” and his brutally realistic, four-and-a-half-hour grunt’s-eye view of World War II was slashed to 113 minutes before Lorimar released it in 1980.
Fuller relates these experiences, and his 40 years as the most independent of directors, in an engagingly gutsy narrative voice. (The text was dictated to his wife between his stroke in 1994 and his death in 1997.) His favorite adjective is “helluva,” the highest compliment he can pay anyone, male or female, is to call them “ballsy,” and he characterizes the opening scenes of more than a few movies he made as “guaranteed to grab any audience by the balls.”
Whether he’s describing a hit like “Shock Corridor,” an unmade pet project like “Balzac” (“My ball-grabbing opening had young Balzac and his mother in a runaway stagecoach”), or the suppressed “White Dog” (completed in 1982 but shelved by Paramount because of its alleged racism), Fuller’s plot summaries have the sizzle of a guy who survived a helluva lot of pitch meetings. He had no use for the studio system, but he could work with the colorful characters who ran it: “We used to have handshake deals back then,” he recalls, comparing the corporate clones of the 1980s with old-line moguls like Darryl F. Zanuck. “A man’s word still meant something.”
He may talk like them, but Fuller never really belonged to the Hollywood huntin’ and fishin’ crowd who made man’s-man pictures. He liked Howard Hawks, but declined the Silver Fox’s invitation to “shoot some poor animal” on the weekend. “That was nuts,” declared the veteran, who’d seen enough senseless slaughter in Europe. He refused a major studio’s offer to finance his Korean War drama “The Steel Helmet” if he’d cast John Wayne because “with Wayne, I’d end up with a simplistic morality tale.” He hired Rod Steiger to portray a Confederate Civil War vet as “a sore loser, not a gallant hero” in “Run of the Arrow” and showed a white woman choosing a Japanese-American cop over his perfectly nice Caucasian partner in “The Crimson Kimono.” “Can’t you make the white guy a sonofabitch?” asked Columbia’s bewildered Sam Briskin.
Fuller’s films were raw, personal, and often deeply eccentric. Godard and Truffaut revered him; he was friendly with German directors Wim Wenders and Rainer Maria Fassbinder; he stood as an artistic beacon to Americans like Jonathan Demme and Martin Scorsese (who wrote this book’s introduction). That list of admirers could be appended to the biography of many Golden Age directors, but John Ford would never have appeared in a film like Dennis Hopper’s “The Last Movie,” as Fuller did. And though Howard Hawks could have gone to the wilds of Brazil and come back with a yarn about a prisoner’s escape into a jungle populated by head-shrinking natives, it’s hard to imagine him declaring, as Fuller did, “What I discovered in that remote corner of Mato Grosso was a society far more peaceful and caring than ours.”
There is hardly a spirit of acquiescence in his appreciation of non-Western cultures, his idiosyncratic politics (detesting fascists, communists, and American right-wingers alike, he believes “all artists are anarchists” and, most importantly, in his belief that a movie should express a personal vision and that artists compromise this vision at their peril. Fuller resembles the portion of the film-school generation that refused to soften into complacent middle age. He even closes his memoir with the assertion, “Love is the answer.” What could be more Sixties?
Actually, those aren’t the book’s very last words. Fuller’s final sentence throws down the gauntlet to those who follow him in the medium he loved even when he was banging his head against the walls of convention and conformity: “Okay, now all you new voices, let yourselves be heard!” Mentored by the giants of early 20th-century journalism, fiercely loyal to the GI “dogfaces” who shared his ordeal on the battlefields of World War II, taken as a father figure by the counterculture, Sam Fuller is too unique an individual to wholly belong to any group but one: the honorable procession of American originals who have always found a way for their challenging voices to be heard.