A helluva life

{mosimage}For the last couple of weeks I have
been hooked with the autobiography of the American writer and filmmaker
Samuel Fuller. It reads like a novel. A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking
was written just a couple of years before his death in 1997 and is an
exciting tale of a very exciting life – or it would be better to say of
four or five different lives in one.

Samuel
Fuller, born in 1912, is better known by his movies, but before going
behind the camera he was a screenwriter, a pulp novel author, a
volunteer in the 1st Infantry Division during World War II, a teenage
crime reporter and a copyboy for Hearst’s New York Journal American. Yes, in his eighties, by the time he started writing his autobiography, he had some good stories to tell.

The
first chapters are dedicated to Fuller’s devotion to journalism in the
1920s and 1930s. He was just a kid when he began working as a paperboy
and a copyboy, running up and down the legendary Park Row of New York,
delivering messages to Mr. Hearst’s kitchen. The author was in love
with newspapers and writing. It was the golden age of journalism and
the reader can easily recall the smell of the ink and the linotype
machine. Many years later in 1952, Fuller recreated and paid tribute to
the era in his movie Park Row, one of his most popular films.

In
his teenage years, Fuller dreamt of becoming a reporter and so he did
when he turned 17. He became a crime reporter, no less, going from
school to the morgue and the most dangerous suburbs. Samuel even had a
little encounter with Al Capone.

Like
Kerouac in the 1930s, the young journalist left New York and travelled
across America with his typewriter portraying the country and the
economic crisis. He started drawing cartoons, writing books and even
being a ghostwriter for a popular author, whose name Fuller promised
never to disclose in his life.

Despite
being a published author much earlier than a filmmaker, Samuel Fuller
is known for his movies. Just like many other filmmakers, he arrived in
Hollywood as a screenwriter. He wrote many unaccredited stories, but
soon he started thinking about filming too, but his plans were
interrupted by the war. The United States entered World War II and
Fuller decided to enlist in the infantry. He admits that he did it
because he wanted to cover the war from the front line, even when he
was offered a less risky position in the news department.

As
a soldier, Fuller had an outstanding role in the campaigns in North
Africa and Sicily, and he also participated in the Normandy invasion.
His wartime memories are vivid, realistic and raw, like his movies.
There is no room for useless metaphors or distractions. In his
recollection, war is not a time for heroes and soldiers had only two
options: being killed or going nuts. A blood taste prevails in his
writing.

The Big Red One
is probably Fuller’s most ambitious film. It was his lifetime project.
Made in 1980, it is an epic tale about his experiences during the war.
It features Lee Marvin, Mark “Luke Skywalker” Hamill and a group of
unknown young actors. It reconstructs the fears and the camaraderie of
the soldiers and the stories, and it is far more realistic than other
spectacular films, such as Saving Private Ryan.

Unfortunately,
producers cut the movie by 40 minutes, so at the time of its release it
didn’t have the impact it deserved and Fuller was unhappy with the
result. His first cut of the movie ran to four and a half hours. In
2004 the film was re-edited and reconstructed to be more faithful to
Fuller’s original vision. The new cut clocks in at 160-minutes and it’s
the version currently released on DVD.

Almost
ten years after his death, Samuel Fuller remains a cult filmmaker. His
films were never blockbusters, they didn’t receive many awards or have
a high budget – he didn’t need them. Nowadays his work is praised by
contemporary directors like Martin Scorsese (who wrote the foreword of
the autobiography), Jim Jarmusch, Quentin Tarantino and, Finland’s
finest, Aki and Mika Kaurismäki, who, incidentally, counted upon the
participation of Fuller in a little role on a couple of his films.

Other
trivia for the Finnish reader is that Samuel Fuller was a guest at the
first edition of Midnight Sun Film Festival in Sodankylä in 1986. In
the center of the town, a street was renamed in his honour: Samuel
Fullerin katu (Samuel Fuller’s street).

Do
yourself a favour and watch Samuel Fuller’s films and, if you have the
time, read his autobiography. It is the tale of a genuine storyteller.