SAM FULLER wears a solid gold tag which reads "The Big Red One. Start 6/25/78. Wrap 8/29/78."
It was a gift from a Lorimar executive, rewarding Fuller for finishing his new film, "The Big Red One," on time. The "wrap" date is accurate, but the starting date is off by about 35 years.
Fuller has been trying to make this movie since he started directing in 1948. In the meantime, the celebrated veteran of B-movies made some 20 films -- most of them gritty shockers like "The Steel Helmet" (51), "Hell and High Water" ('54) and "Shock Corridor" (63).
He hasn't had a film distributed in the United States since 1964. (The single exception is "Shark," a 1969 movie with Burt Reynolds that Fuller disowned. It was finally sold to TV.) But now at the age of 67 he is making a comeback with the new film, produced by Lorimar and distributed by United Artists.
"I got younger and better-looking as they saw the rushes," Fuller says, with a smile. "I finally wound up looking like a cross between Hedy Lamarr and Arlene Dahl."
The film, which opened here Friday, was conceived when Fuller was serving in World War II with the First Infantry Division, called The Big Red One for its distinctive shoulder patch. "Over a period of three years, I sent home many souvenirs to my mother," he says, "and I labelled them. Little things, like a 3 1/2-inch sliver of lead. I tagged it wrote what it was, what battle it was, and what happened at the battle. She collected all this stuff for me, because some day I wanted to do this yarn." He thought of it first as a novel, and later, when he began directing movies, as a film.
The movie was finally made through the determination of Peter Bogdanovich, one of Fuller's many admirers in the New Hollywood. He urged Fuller to finish the script and promised to produce it. Bogdanovich helped to sell the film to Lorimar, a company that started out in television and is now a substantial producer of theatrical films.
But Bogdanovich had to leave to direct his own comeback film, "Saint Jack." He found another producer for Fuller: Gene Corman, brother of Roger Corman (the legendary exploitation director and sponsor of several Hollywood whiz kids). Corman saw the film through location shooting in Israel and Ireland and through Fuller's initial 4 1/2-hour cut. "I needed a man who would back me up, not fight me," Fuller says. "One who's against the money and for the picture. When I wanted one tank, Gave me 10. That's the opposite of a producer."
During production, Lorimar went through a change in management, but remained positive about the film, which finally cost just over $6 million. They did give it to an outside editor when Fuller decided to elimate scenes rather than try to "dovetail and manicure" sequences that the executives wanted to see in the final, two-hour cut. They also commissioned a narration. Fuller is pleased with the result: "They did a hell of a job."
The film has been sold to television in its original four-hour length. The feature version competed at Cannes in May. And Bantam Books is publishing Fuller's novel version of "The Big Red One" simultaneously with the film's oepning.
"I've taken my hill," Fuller says, brandishing his trademark cigar. "Now it's up to the reader and the moviegoer."
There are people in Hollywood, Fuller says, who "don't go to bed before thinking, 'How can I bore people tomorrow?'"
Clearly, he is not one of them. watching him at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County recently, where he was a guest at a retrospective on America in the '50s, it was impossible to believe that he has been out of the public eye for more than 15 years.
He glares, he squints, he roars with laughter at a particularly ironic punchline (his own). He pounds the table or the chair or the nearest person and singles out one face in his audience to play to. That's the one he'll collar later on, when he needs someone to act out the other part in a blow-by-blow account of the taking of Normandy Beach or the way you keep from getting killed when the seargeant orders you to escort German prisoners to batallion headquarters by yourself at 3 a.m.
The sheer dynamism of his normal gait and speech makes his silvery hair slip down in waves around his ears, giving him the look of a sardonic lion on a perpetual buzz.
"I'm on a vacation all the time," he says. "If you can get into that mood, you'll be very happy because you're always working on something, You're changing it in your mind. You're your own judge. It's a very healthy approach. If you're a one- or two-idea person, you'd better get out of the business. Because if it doesn't sell, you'll kill youself. Slowly. I know too many fellows who are still waiting for that phone call."
Fuller never waited. He made B-movies with small budgets and small-time actors, for the most part. His topical melodramas teetered on the edge of paranoid fantasy with surprising grace and a distinctive visual style and that won him a devoted following in Europe. (Most critics here just chalked that up to the inexplicable enthusiasms of the French intelligentsia for odd corners in American culture, like Jerry Lewis.)
His movies made money until television and the box office slump of the '60s combined to crowd him out of the market. He directed some television and sold a few scripts. But he hasn't seen a project come to the screen the way he intended for a long time.
He takes some of the blame for that himself. "I get a kick out of what I write," he admits. "I want to see something I haven't seen. And that's gotten me into a lot of trouble." He has watched many deals fall through, but he's not bitter. "I like certain stories; and if you're putting up the money you have all the right in the world to say, 'Sammy, you want to do "The Red Ashtray"?' And I have all the right in the world to say, 'You want "The Brown Table" instead?"
But he puts some of the blame on the studios, which Fuller says were often people with a species of producer he calls "moujiks," a Russian term for a class of rich peasant. "A moujik will sit at a table," Fuller says, "and say, 'I want something different.' Now you go back and break your a -- to write something different and you give it to him. He says: 'Well, this is great! However. I think we ought to change this and that," and so on.
"They're children generally. They say one thing Monday, but when you finish it, by the time Friday comes along, it goes back to what they wanted originally. But they didn't tell you that when they first talked to you. These are mental peasants. They have the loot. But there are other people who have the loot who aren't enemies of ideas.
"The easiest thing in the world is to make an acceptable movie," Fuller says. But he never did that easy thing. His moving camera style and shock editing are a perfect expression of his own feisty career as a resolutely independent director and producer. "I like to move against the action," he tells film students in describing how he shoots. "I like to get double impact."
And he got it too, in the emotional hysteria of films like "Pickup on South Street" (1953), "House of Bamboo" (1955), "The Naked Kiss" (1964) and the 14 other movies he directed (and usually wrote and sometimes produced) between 1948 and 1964. Films about men in combat, petty thieves, prostitues, renegades, and all manner of overextended psyches in a world at undeclared war with itself on all fronts.
While he waited on "The Big Red One" to materialize, either as a novel or a movie, he used some of his yarns to shape the best American movies ever made about war's personal dimension. Although Fuller is a master of overstatement, "Fixed Bayonets" (1951) and "Merrill's Marauders" (1962) were scrupulously detailed accounts of the perverse tics and strategies of a soldier under fire develops.
Fuller talks in war metaphors for almost every activity, including film-making, and developed some pretty odd tics and strategies as a director himself. He often carried a pistol on the set and fired it to start the action. He let his actors rehearse on fake ice in "Fixed Bayonets," and then iced the floor before he called them back for the actual shooting. He thought they would look more realistic on an unexpectedly slippery surface. Fuller tells about hiring camera operators by "looking at their rumps." He was looking for small ones: It was important to make sure that no part of the anatomy would jiggle the camera by bumping into walls or props. Fuller could easily squeeze a dozen camera moves intoa single shot, a nerve-racking experience for both cast and crew.
Fuller is a mass of contradictions. The director whom critic Andrew Sarris characterized as a true American primitive is a devoted student of classic literature. He has always wanted to film Rimbaud's "The Drunken Boat," which he has read to his 5-year-old daughter as a bedtime story. She is his only child, his daughter with Christa Lang, a young German actress whom he met in Paris in 1965 and married. They have lived for years in a house in Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles.
Among the contradictions are Fuller's political ideas. He has a reputation as the most virulent right-winger American cinema has produced. The fact is that Fuller's politics are a brand of raving individualism that mows down political ideas; his movies simply used the dominant idiom of his day, anti-Communism.
"Forget about politics," he says. He touches his forehead and his breast. "Here and here. That's all."
He had an undeniable talent for zeroing in on the schizoid heart of the American '50s, the kind of multivalent fear that produced such lines as this one from "The Steel Helmet": "The place is crawlin' with Commies, just waiting to slap you between two pieces of rye bread and wash you down with fish eggs and vodka." Jean-Luc Godard, one of Fuller's biggest fans, once said he could imagine Fuller as a politician. "That's because he knows I hate politicians," Fuller roars. " I love anything that makes a politician or a diplomat want to kill themselves. I hate politics, but if I make a movie about a guy who loves Stalin you're gonna love Joe Stalin," he insists.
If he sometimes sounds like a hard-boiled reporter of the Front Page school, that's what Fuller was -- and remains in spirit.
In the '20s, he went from newsboy to copyboy to crime reporter. And like many reporters of the era, he wrote pulp novels -- three of them.
There was a company that supplied titles to willing writers who could knock off 50- or 60,000 words to fit. "It paid the rent," Fuller chuckles, "and it was easy stuff to write." He got ideas for his novels from his news stories. He once interviewed a Nobel prize-winning scientist and told him, "This is a lousy story, Doc. You've given this to every wire service in the world. What have you got that's new?"
The doctor replied, "the ectogenetic child" -- meaning artificial insemination. "I couldn't put that title on a book," Fuller says, "so I came up with "Test Tube Baby.'"
Fuller's novels and newspaper connections got him into the movies in 1936. The great Gene Fowler, Sam's former editor, summoned Fuller to Hollywood from San Diego, where the young man had been working for a "Scripps-Howard sheet." Fowler showed Fuller a large check and said, "I don't think you understand. I get that weekly. Weekly." Fuller tried his hand at screenwriting and screen ghostwriting until he went to war. When he returned to Hollywood, he finagled a deal to direct by offering to take "low money" for his screenplay, a low-budget western, if the distributor would let him direct it.
Fuller made two westerns and then hit it big with the first movie about the Korean War. "The Steel Helmet" was shot in 10 days at a cost of $105,000. kAll the location work was done in four hours at Griffith Park with 25 University of Southern California students. "(Now let's run around the other way, boys.") It depicted an American GI shooting a prisoner, and that drew the wrath of the Pentagon, which refused to give Fuller any stock footage. The Army thought he made the American soldier in the film look "semi-coherent" next to the cunning, well-educated Commie that he shoots. "Of course we were semi-coherent," Fuller says now. "You don't think we'd work for $50 or $60 a month to kill people if we weren't?"
Fuller and his partner went to the Pentagon to discuss the matter. One officer objected that an American soldier would never shoot an unarmed POW. "Naturally he's unarmed. He's a POW," Fuller remembers saying. "These bananaheads. They were hypocrites, non-combatants, and high-ranking officers in the Pentagon. I was embarrassed and upset." But he kept telling himself, "Just remember you are always in the company of knotheads. Let them prove they're not. Don't forget -- you have a script. They have nothing."
Eventually the brass coughed up some stock artillery footage which everyone agreed was worse than any of the cut-rate locations Fuller himself used.
"The picture was making money hand-ove-fist," Fuller says, "so the studios wanted me. I picked 20th, they didn't pick me. I had a date with everybody, I had luncheons galore. Mr. L. B. Mayer, Mr. Jack L. Warner -- the heads of studios."
The studios had a tendency to change Fuller's material in drastic ways. "Fixed Bayonets" was about a soldier unable to fire on a single human target. When he does shoot an advancing Communist in the film's climax, Fuller's original ending reveals his "victory" to be an accident. Darryl Zanuck, however, wanted a real hero and got one. A similarly iconoclastic ending was softened in Fuller's feverish western, "Forty Guns" ('57). The implacable lawman played by Barry Sullivan shot his sweetheart, Barbara Stanwyck, dead in Fuller's script when her psycho brother used her as a shield. The studios let her live.
When Fuller's credit faded in the '60s, he didn't stop writing the kind of things he likes best. He just stopped selling them. He has dozens of scripts and treatments sitting on his shelves (and on the floor and every other surface of his office).
His fans have tried to keep him at least in front of the camera if not behind it. In 1965 Godard asked him to define cinema in "Pierrot Le Fou" and got this gem: "The film is like a battleground -- love, hate, action, violence, death. In one word, emotion." ("I told him I'd make it succinct so he wouldn't cut me out," Fuller remembers.)
Since then Fuller has done walk-ons "as favors" for friends like German director Wim Wenders and American maverick Dennis Hopper. He played a director for Hopper in the ill-fated "The Last Movie" in 1970 on location in Peru.
He appeared in "1941" as a defense commander, but steadfastly refused to let spielberg use the phrase "Big Red One" in his ominous comedy. Fuller objected on the grounds that it was an infantry division and had nothing to do with civil defense. Spielberg asked Fuller to say just "red one" and was refused. Then he asked Fuller to say just "red" or "red alert." Fuller agreed, and that's as big a favor as Spielberg could do for Fuller's pet project.
Fuller takes his work seriously. And particularly the way the subject of war has been handled in movies and novels.
Fuller thinks they never deal with the real war: That's what "The Big Red One" is about. "Somewhere," he whispers, "a man squeezed the trigger and," his voice rises, "another man died." He waves his hands. "It's so hypocritical -- they never talk about those two men. They talk about the president saying, 'It has come to my attention' and 'Congress has agreed' and 'After a sober, somber, and long discussion, this country is at -- war.' What is this bulls---?" He slaps the chair arm. "That man is at war. There's no president, there's no Congress, there's nothing, nothing," he snarls. "I got so angry, I wanted to make sure everybody feels funny, creepy, about it."
"The only violence I hope we caught," he continues, "is the humorous violence of men who know they don't belong where they are and why isn't somebody else here? Now that's real war. That's the only thing you think of. Why me, why not him?"
Fuller knows what the perfect war novel is, but never expects to see it. "How can it be a war novel when you can put it down at page 22 and go to the bathroom, make a phone call, go out and eat, come back and pick up a battle? A real war novel would have one page that is booby-trapped, so that as you turn the page, you would know you might be wounded while reading."
He hasn't really changed, or even mellowed much, this last old wild man of Americans movies. "I'm going back to my olf-fashioned way," he laughs. "I love the way I used to think, and I'm gonna think like that."
Fuller's future and the fate of "The Big Red One" look good right now. "It's too good," Fuller says. "It's like we're taking every hill, and you can't take every hill. It's impossible."
Whatever happens, the real success story is that the American film industry has taken back one of its most brilliant eccentrics.
"I want everybody to have that one moment when they look in the mirror," Samuel Fuller sighs, "and say 'No, no' and their reflection says 'Yes, yes'. That's how it is to be rich."