Cinephile’s Notebook: Masters of War 

The films of Samuel Fuller, monosyllabic mythmaker, are blunt as the butt-end of a rifle. The problem of making each member of an ensemble cast distinctive is handled with brutal efficiency; everybody has one defining trait. Here a quirky ethnic accent, there a guy who can’t stop eating; a cynic to the left and a naif to the right; one with a painful backstory and one who’s going to open a bowling alley when he gets out. (For what it’s worth, though, all four of the movies shown in BAM’s "Fuller at War" begin and end on a battlefield.) Themes are treated with equal subtlety; Fuller’s morals, like Associated Press articles, are pitched to the frequency of the lowest common denominator. While this yields some profoundly embarrassing moments (consider the post-war Germany propaganda piece Verboten! and the inadvertently racist anti-communist propaganda piece China Gate, both appropriate for this program but absent from it), it’s part and parcel to raw, propulsive filmmaking characterized by Rushmore close-ups and fevered tension. Pulp never had such a hard edge.

Merrill’s Marauders,

Problems with scope also plague

Tight locations and terse scripts focus Fuller’s two Korean War pictures; they bristle with purpose.

based on a real Pacific Theater campaign, ends on a sermonizing note but does fine until then. The interplay among the soldiers is unforced (it’s one of the relatively few successful depictions of casual military banter), and the rare opportunity to shoot in color and on location seems to have inspired Fuller to slow down and appreciate the scenery. The scenes immediately following battles, emphasizing physical and psychological agony, are here as elsewhere devastatingly specific, but the battles themselves are shapeless. Fuller never had much of a handle on large-scale choreography, and his staging doesn’t work in anything longer than a medium shot.The Big Red One, but the film, based on Fuller’s own experiences in WWII, is carried by sheer ambition. The long-awaited restored version is a tribute to Fuller, and to critic Richard Schickel, who orchestrated the restoration.The Steel Helmet, widely and correctly considered his best war movie, features a powerhouse performance from Gene Evans, while the underrated Fixed Bayonets was photographed by Lucien Ballard, the best cinematograhper Fuller ever worked with; I’d say to watch for the 360-degree pan, but it’s not like it’s possible to miss these things. Mark Asch


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