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With: John Ireland, Reed Hadley, Barbara Britton, Preston Foster, Vincent Price, Ellen Drew, Gene Evans, William Chun
Written by: Samuel Fuller
Directed by: Samuel Fuller
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 262
Date: 19/03/2013

The First Films of Samuel Fuller (2007)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Man of Action

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy The First Films of Samuel Fuller on DVD

Criterion Eclipse continues its series of excellent DVD box sets devoted to "lesser" films by great directors. The idea is that, by packaging these films together for a bargain price with no "extras," they are more easily accessible than they would be individually. The First Films of Samuel Fuller, containing three DVDs, is the fifth in the series. (See also Late Ozu.)

I Shot Jesse James (1949)
Like many other writers, Fuller's debut feature came after he grew disenchanted watching others mangle his work. It was shot on an extremely low budget (about $100,000), with very few exterior shots, and it feels a bit stagebound. John Ireland plays Robert Ford as slightly clueless, as if he doesn't fully comprehend his actions. Nevertheless, Fuller's film has a dynamic psychology at work; the Ford character has a kind of sour presence that follows him around. Characters don't quite know how to deal with him. Ford's early scenes with Jesse (Reed Hadley) effectively set the tone with their homoerotic touches; a bathing Jesse asks Ford to scrub his back. Some critics called it the "first psychological Western." Barbara Britton plays the girl that Ford wants to marry, but she's almost incidental. Preston Foster is top-billed, but plays a relatively minor character.

The Baron of Arizona (1950)
When Fuller based a movie on a true story, he made sure it was a doozy. The Baron of Arizona tells the story of James Addison Reavis (Vincent Price) who went to extraordinary lengths, forging documents and ancient texts and building stone markers, to claim the land rights to the entire Arizona territory. He locates an orphaned girl and announces that she's really a Baroness. When she grows up, he marries her and becomes a "Baron." He even becomes a monk for several years merely to gain access to a particularly elusive set of records! Though the idea of forging documents doesn't sound like a particularly visual movie, Fuller finds ways to make his story exciting and compelling; he even gets perhaps the best performance from Price that I've ever seen. Ellen Drew co-stars as the poor, duped "Baroness."

The Steel Helmet (1951)
Made the same year as Fixed Bayonets, this was Fuller's first full-fledged masterpiece, a small-scale war film in which the exotic landscape reflects the characters' psychology. In Korea, Sergeant Zack (Gene Evans) finds himself the sole survivor of an attack, and a young Korean boy (William Chun) lends him a hand. Zack dubs him "Short Round" and takes him on as a kind of mascot. He runs into another platoon (made up of men from all different races, religions and creeds), and they take shelter in a beautiful Buddhist temple, where internal conflicts bash up against the real, external conflict. Evans' gruff delivery expertly matches Fuller's rock-hard dialogue, and the various jumble of surfaces coheres into a sublime experience. I'm not much for war films, but this is one of the best.

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