Saturday, February 26, 2022

Samuel Fuller, Bad reputation

Third and final text of the series on Samuel Fuller translated with Andy Rector: a short text by Daney published in 1982.

Samuel Fuller, Bad reputation

Take Sadoul’s excellent little Filmmakers Dictionary (Dictionnaire des cinéastes, Editions du Seuil). Open the last edition to page 112 and read the article on Samuel Fuller. You will first find ten lines written by the late Sadoul himself: “dyed-in-the-wool anti-communism”, “racist themes”, in short: hate. After a paragraph break, comes thirty-seven lines full of praise written in 1981 by Breton and Marie. It’s a different vocabulary: “fanatical individualism”, “narrator instinct”, “in the tradition of Griffith”. Nobody says bad things about Fuller anymore, not even communists. Post mortem, Sadoul’s dictionary goes to Canossa and changes its mind on Fuller (and acknowledges it). Recently in 1982, the French Cinematheque organised a tribute to Fuller and on the day of the inauguration, Sam and his cigar came to exchange a few friendly words with a moved audience. It was the world premiere of White Dog. Fuller has not forgotten that his career as an auteur started in France. A strange career for a strange auteur. 

In the U.S.A., Fuller faced the problem of being an auteur in an anti-auteur system. Of being singular where ordinary individualism prevails. Of being a born narrator, evil-thinking and often inspired. Of being obsessed with two or three questions as old as Griffith and American cinema. I quote: the immediate transfer of History into stories, the live transplantation of documentary onto fiction, the art of the rapid catharsis, the “theme of the hero and the traitor” (with a predilection for the traitor), the archaeology of the American nation (and therefore racism). So, it’s in France that Fuller’s small frenetic films, often B series, were noticed. 

In France, Fuller faced the problem of being reduced to the anti-Communist content of his scripts at a time when the Cold War had dulled even the film critics’ wits. Sadoul got it wrong again and Fuller became an ideal target for those who thought themselves, self-righteously, on the Left. Anti-communist, therefore fascist and racist: nothing was spared. Sensitive cinephiles could see that this unclassifiable filmmaker who was very naturally making a very inventive cinema, converting the constraints of small budgets in creative licence, and only telling his stories, was the opposite of an ideologist. Divided, they concluded that the “form” of Fuller’s art was brilliant but that its “content” was very reprehensible. Pathetic.

One can be very American (and Fuller certainly is) by spinelessly celebrating the values of White America: puritanism and familialism. Some are even “WASPophile”. Never Fuller. He asked himself, more bluntly, from which crimes American came, and why this territory was populated by survivors: Indians, Blacks, Asians, Jews, and why it inherits from all the genocides. Fuller is a mythologist, a precious dismantler of the melting pot, someone always looking at the zero point in a story. This is why he is ahead of everyone in the critical thinking of modern westerns. His wonderful Run of the Arrow (1957) comes a good thirteen years before Little Big Man (and it’s a whole lot better). 

The paradox of Fuller, a journalist, traveller, writer of pulp novels and war stories, always news-hungry, is to have arrived ten or fifteen years too early in the landscape of American cinema. If he hadn’t demonstrated some very “Fullerian” vitality and optimism, he wouldn’t have found the strength to be present when, finally taken seriously, he was able to take up the thread of his broken career again and give us first The Big Red One and then White Dog. Especially White Dog

First published in Libération on 9 July 1982. Reprinted in La maison cinema et le monde, vol.2, P.O.L., 2022. Translated with the help of Andy Rector. 


  1. Daney gets it right, some of it.

    1. I'm curious. Which bits are in disute?


Comments are moderated to filter spam.