Samuel Fuller was one year old when Walsh made his first film, three years old when Chaplin made his first, four years old when Griffith made Birth of a Nation, six years old when Ford made his first. Many veterans of the silent film are still alive, working or looking for work: Dwan, Lang, Hitchcock, Hawks, Renoir, Vidor. Fuller made his first film, I Shot Jesse James, after two decades of sound, in 1949. He is a post-Welles director, a little older that Welles, whose films appear along with films made by directors whose cinema careers began before Welles was born. The fantastically foreshortened time-scale of the cinema has meant that few American directors are seen in their proper perspective. Fuller perhaps least of all. Even an informed critic like Andrew Sarris, writing in Film Culture, has described Fuller as a ‘primitive’; his failure to treat ‘contemporary’, ‘real-life’ subjects and situations has led most critics to lose sight of his distinctiveness and to relegate him into the ranks of the ‘action directors’ who are thought of as making up the solid, traditional rearguard of American cinema rather than its brilliant, exceptional vanguard. Ritt, Cassavetes and Sanders excite critical attention, while Fuller is neglected.
Fuller has worked consistently within the American cinema genres: Western, gangster, Pacific war. These genres, I would argue, are the great strength of the American cinema. America is a comparatively young nation which has grown very rapidly into a leading global power. It is no accident that the epochs of the cinema genres are also the epochs of crisis in America’s consciousness of itself, its national identity and its role in history. The American cinema helped to develop the national consciousness while it developed its own genres, through its mutually responsive relationship with its mass public. American cinema has developed artistically out of the romantic movement and,
Fuller’s world is a violent world, a world of conflict: Red Indian v. white man, gangster v. police, American v. communist. (Fuller has updated the Pacific War movie to deal with both Korea and Viet-Nam.) But neither the fronts nor the occasions for conflict are clearly delimited. Battles take place in utter confusion: in thick fog, in snowstorms, in mazes. All Fuller’s war films are about encounters behind the enemy lines. Nor do the protagonists even know why or for what they are fighting. ‘How do you tell a North Korean from a South Korean?’ asks a puzzled gi in Steel Helmet. His stogie-chewing sergeant replies: ‘If he’s running with you, he’s a South Korean. If he’s running after you he’s a North Korean.’ In China Gate we see the defence of the American alliance in Viet-Nam by a commando patrol: one is a German veteran of the Hermann Goering Brigade, one an American negro, both enlisted in the Foreign Legion. The only reason they give for being there is that the Korean War is over so they looked for another troublespot. They are, in fact, the dregs of society, psychopathic killers with no purpose in life. Fuller often points out how such people take the burden of defending the society which has rejected them.
The typical Fuller hero is poised ambiguously in the conflict. Often he is a double agent. In Verboten the neo-Nazi, Bruno, infiltrates the American Occupation hq; in House of Bamboo a military policeman infiltrates a gang entirely made up of men discharged with ignominy from the us army. In Pick-up on South Street and China Gate the central characters try to play both ends at once, America and communism, to their personal advantage. ‘Don’t wave the flag at me,’ says the pickpocket hero of Pick-up who has inadvertently lifted a microfilm from a Russian spy, and proceeds to auction it to the highest bidder. Lucky Legs, in China Gate, makes possible the success of a French mission by her friendship with the Viet-Minh look-outs and camps, whom she leads in singing the Marseillaise while the legionaries sneak by. In the end they both choose America. Why? Irrational personal loyalties.
Ambiguity in its most extreme form is represented in Fuller’s films by the Nisei, the Japanese American, and the Chinese American. In Hell and High Water a captured Chinese communist appeals to an American Chinese, who is a stool-pigeon to get information from him. Despite the communist’s evident humanity and amiability the American Chinese betrays him. He is, as he sees it, a loyal American. Fuller takes the matter further. He asks how the white American sees the Chinese American. One of the major themes of his films is anti-racism, subordinated to the theme of nationalism. In The Crimson Kimono, set in Los Angeles, a white girl leaves her white boy-friend for his best friend, a Nisei. This film was made in the same year, 1959, as Hiroshima, mon Amour. Fuller deals with the race problem much more radically than
To Fuller, however, it is America that is always paramount. There is a clear contradiction between his attitude to the Nisei and the negro, whom Fuller sees as being necessarily integrated into American society, and the attitude he takes to the white ‘renegade’ O’Meara in Run of the Arrow, a Western. O’Meara, a Southerner, cannot tolerate the idea of living under the Union flag and the Union constitution, after Lee’s surrender. ‘They chased us when we had no legs; they crammed our bread into their mouths when we had no food.’ He goes west and joins the Sioux nation. When the Yankees come and make a treaty with the Sioux chief Red Cloud, Red Cloud insists that they employ a Sioux scout, not a Cherokee. The Sioux scout chosen by the chief is O’Meara. Fuller is scupulously fair to the Indians: he permits O’Meara to criticize the treaty terms and sympathizes when the Indians wipe out a us cavalry detachment after the terms are broken. But he insists that O’Meara cannot fully integrate himself into the Sioux nation. He returns, with his Indian wife and child, to the Union, recognizing that he is an American. Yet he insists that the Nisei is not a ‘renegade’ and that he can be integrated into America. Fuller’s anti-racism is limited by his nationalism and his nationalism is finally determined by his own nationality. Fuller is an American and in the end all his heroes choose America.
But Fuller does not evade the problems; he evades the answer. Although he is committed to America, he is well aware of the contradictions in American society and does not hesitate to confront them. His America is a violent, divided America; his saviours of America are delinquents and misfits. His Americans rampage through South-East Asia—through Burma, Viet-Nam, Korea, Japan—and huge statues of the Buddha smile sardonically down on them. In Steel Helmet us troops crouched on the Buddha’s lap fire over the Buddha’s shoulder. Fuller’s Romantic nationalism is quite incapable of seeing any positive way forward, any real future. The America he celebrates is teetering into lunacy. This is further demonstrated by the plot-synopsis of the film he is now working on, Shock Corridor: