In Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou (1965), Samuel Fuller (playing a fictional director) comments on an upcoming project, “The film is like a battle-ground: love, hate, action, violence, death…in one word: emotion.” This is the perfect summation of Fuller’s own style, which approaches such grandiose topics with a medley of bluntness, sensationalism, and barbaric poetry. As evinced by his first three films, I Shot Jesse James (1949), The Baron of Arizona (1950), and The Steel Helmet (1951) — all just released for the first time on DVD — Fuller’s artistic vision was nearly complete from the start of his career.
I Shot Jesse James and The Baron of Arizona are daring, unconventional Westerns: the former offers a sympathetic portrayal of a cold-blooded murderer who shoots his boss in the back for a reward and a woman (Fuller’s reworking of genre conventions precedes such revisionist films as The Wild Bunch and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly by more than a decade), while the latter focuses on a forger’s attempt to rewrite history in order to inherit the state. The real gem of the set, however, is The Steel Helmet, the first American film to address the Korean War (only six months after it had begun). Unusually brutal for its time, the chaotic and unmannered finale remains potent 56 years later. Underlying each of these films is not only Fuller’s interest in the creation of an American mythology but also his unshakeable patriotism. Cynical as only an ex-reporter can be, Fuller believed in the American Dream — that his characters didn’t often achieve it reassures us that Fuller never became too much of an idealist.