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Wednesday, July 2, 2008

DVD Review: Fuller's Fulfilling First Films

Review by Noah Mallin

I've been on a Sam Fuller kick lately, partly from being engrossed in his lively autobiography. This underrated American director has a thriving cult and I suppose I can be counted as a member. You could do worse as an introduction than Eclipse's The First Films of Sam Fuller, out now on DVD.

The budget priced set consists of his first three films (duh) and like many multi-film sets the overall quality varies. None of the three are stinkers but only one is a mind-blowing lost classic. Let's dispatch with the others first.

I Shot Jesse James (1949) is a fine debut for the novelist soldier turned screenwriter/director. The relation to real life history is Hollywood scant as John Ireland plays Robert Ford as a petulant lovesick asshole and Reed Hadley plays a Jesse James full of backslapping bonhomie. The titular shooting takes a backseat to the rivalry between he and prospector turned sheriff John Kelley for a lady singer. There are several good scenes here, like Ford taking part in a staged re-enactment of the shooting in a rapt theater full of slack-jawed patrons but the pacing is gummy and scenes that are meant to build tension barely skirt unintended humor.

His second film, The Baron of Arizona (1950), is yet another unhistorical history piece and is hampered by a poorly conceived framing device. Vincent Price is the scheming land grabber who creepily finds a young girl, fakes her royal bloodline, and then waits till she's barely old enough to marry her and become the Baron of Arizona. Price is at his hammy best and there are several sequences that find him plumbing the wry humor inherent in going undercover as a Franciscan monk to forge records that are kept in the Abbey. Still, Fuller still hasn't caught the fine art of pacing.

It's on his third film, The Steel Helmet (1951), that his genius emerges from the very first shot of Sgt. Zack emerging from a field of dead bodies. It's no accident that this is the film of the three that is clearly drawn on Fuller's own harrowing experiences in World War II, experiences he would bring to The Big Red One which made my list of the best war movies ever. The Steel Helmet could easily find a berth on that list. Set during the then-current Korean War, this is a brutal unsentimental anti-war film that never stoops to preaching. It also happens to rip the guts out of the rampant racial prejudice that existed in the first war in which American troops were fully integrated. The scene in which a captured North Korean tries to turn a Japanese-American and a black soldier against their own country is incendiary stuff indeed for 1951 -- neither American soldier can dispute the facts of racism at home, even as they love what America stands for.

At the heart of The Steel Helmet is the relationship between gruff cigar-chomping Sgt. Zack and a young South Korean boy he nicknames Short Round. No this isn't the prequel to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom but you can see what inspired Spielberg and Lucas with this pairing and how woefully inept they were at creating the same chemistry in their 80s homage. This Short Round may correct Zack by saying "I'm not a gook, I'm a South Korean!" but the vet still throws the kid down to the ground several times when the enemy fire starts to the immortal line "Eat rice kid!" The unknown actor Gene Evans, who plays Zack, is magnificent and utterly believable as the seasoned war weary dogface.

The gorgeous black and white cinematography by Ernest Miller and a strong ensemble cast all do their part to make this a bleakly exhilarating film from beginning to end, a must see. Eclipse is Criteron's no-frills budget line so aside from a pristine transfer their aren't many extras, not that you need them. At the affordable list price, consider the first two films as the extra and spring for The Steel Helmet.

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