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A Helluva Life
by Eduardo Alonso
2007-09-21 10:03:24
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A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking
Written by Samuel Fuller
Applause Theatre Book Publishers, 2004

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.

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Emanuel Paparella2007-09-21 11:54:23
Judging from the movie The Big Red One Fuller must be a great story teller. I'd read anything coming from a great story teller even if it is the story of radishes. It is the form, not the content that matters there. A great story teller can narrate the history of science and transmutate science into poetry; sort of changing water into wine.

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