- Film is Like a Battlefield: Sam Fuller'S War Movies by Marsha Gordon
By the age of thirty-three, Samuel Fuller had been a journalist, a pulp novelist, and a working screenwriter in Hollywood. He had also served in the US Army for over three years and landed in North Africa, in Sicily, and at Omaha Beach on D-Day. He had fought in Belgium, Holland, and Germany and in Czechoslovakia, where at the end of the war in May 1945, he and members of his unit liberated a German prison camp that was a virtual death camp for many of its Allied, especially Soviet, prisoners. For many who had seen far less combat and who never saw Nazi atrocities firsthand, the war was traumatic. The "Greatest Generation" did not often talk about their experiences and even more rarely sought help. Sam Fuller came home and started directing movies about war, his own and others. He was perhaps uniquely positioned by his age and varied writing background to record, revisit, and come to terms with those awful experiences, not only personally but also in ways that could be passed on to future generations in the terms of popular cinema. From The Steel Helmet (1951), the first combat movie about the Korean War, to The Big Red One (1980), a film derived from his World War II experiences, the combat zone was a persistent setting for this stylist who was also known for his original takes on the Western, the crime movie, and the psychological thriller. In fact, Fuller worked virtually the whole of his professional filmmaking career to transform his wartime experiences into cinematic narratives, as analyzed with great clarity and success in Marsha Gordon's new book.
Gordon's impressive study draws on a variety of primary sources, especially the rich trove of Fuller's wartime letters, notes, drawings, and other documents maintained by his family. Fuller went to war thinking actively about turning his experiences into novels or screenplays, as he often stated in letters home. He made diagrams and cartoons, wrote detailed notes and brief story treatments, took photos that he labeled with locations and dates, and continued publishing original fiction, acts that seem in retrospect less about the future than about ways to sustain his sanity as he fought in every infantry combat phase of the European theater. "The line between personal memory, history, and dramatic cinematic moment is always at play in a Fuller war movie," Gordon says (239), which could serve as a succinct statement of the book's thesis and method, teasing out the often complex and creative interplay between those differing modes of memory and representation.
Of Fuller's wartime fiction, a 1943 magazine short story titled "Johnny Had a Little Lamb," which Gordon discusses in detail, is a vivid and original tale about a GI in Italy, who in peacetime is a sheep rancher but is now charged [End Page 105] with driving flocks of sheep across probable enemy minefields to both explode the mines and help map the area for safe passage. As an artist, Fuller was both describing a horrifyingly pragmatic instance of the insanity of war and, perhaps only half-consciously, dealing with the experience of watching men blown up in similar ways—and at a point when it could still easily have happened to him. Based on Gordon's sharp analysis, this story and Fuller's other short fiction—along with the journals and notes he produced while in uniform—cry out for collection and publication.
Corporal Fuller also shot personal 16mm film footage, including documentation of a ritual at the liberated Falkenau camp in western Czechoslovakia, where American troops forced German soldiers to dress and then bury their maltreated Russian victims in a formal ritual and brought out prominent civilians from the nearby town, who claimed to know nothing about the camp, to witness this result of Hitler's regime. Carefully analyzing the product that Fuller edited after the war, Gordon writes, "The film … is not … a replica of Fuller's experience...