A posthumous autobiographical film written by the great maverick writer, journalist and director Samuel Fuller. A posthumous autobiography? Well, this is a personal project directed by Fuller’s daughter Samantha but the words are entirely those from Sam Fuller Snr’s autobiography A Third Face, so it has indeed been written by the late great director. This text is narrated by many of the people who worked with him during his illustrious career, including a number of actors who played in some of his films, films which elicited a range of responses from critics and viewers; from adoration at the marvel and confrontational issues he addressed to those who were dismayed, shocked or offended. Jim Jarmusch, Wim Wenders (who narrates here), Joe Dante (who narrates here),William Friedkin (who narrates here) and Jean Luc Goddard (whose Pierrot le fou (1965) features Fuller and is shown as a clip) are among the many directors who found him to be an inspiration. Another aspect to this documentary is that it features archive film footage from Fuller himself, covering many many decades, that was found in his home and is shown here for the first time.
The film covers Fuller’s life from his roots growing up in the Upper West Side in New York, a working class upbringing that saw him selling newspapers on street corners before deciding that he wanted to produce content for them. As his career progressed his emergence as a writer – as a reporter and writer of fiction – continued through his army days, when he fought in the second world war, and his post war vocation as a writer and film director. By linking his autobiography with his career and the archive footage available, there is – necessarily – a lot of emphasis on his time in the army as part of the Big Red One company, which became the semi-autobiographical piece that was finally filmed as the rightly applauded The Big Red One (1980). For those familiar with this film, A Fuller Life places matters into a wider context. For those unfamiliar with The Big Red One this documentary demonstrates you why you really should see it.
Fuller’s writing career started when he worked as a reporter covering crime stories in the 1920s and 30s. The shock of these sort of atrocities would form an influence of his later films, where he would often comment on the nastier and horrific aspects of society. Fuller attended murder scenes and mortuaries and eventually witnessed the result of such criminality through the state executions of death row prisoners in the electric chair, which was something that profoundly affected the seemingly irascible maverick journalist and cartoonist. He noted that, ‘I’d been hanging around the morgue so much my clothes smelled of formaldehyde.’ At 29 Fuller signed up for war, camera in hand, and became involved with ‘the biggest crimes of all time’ in what was, as he noted, ‘organised insanity’. He served in Africa, Sicily and the Normandy landings before encountering the unimaginable horrors of the concentration camps, the aftermaths of which were seen in actual footage that he shot, as well as his subsequent recreation of the incidents. Following the war, his success as a writer led to film directing roles, jumping between studios not so much for personal recompense but from an artistic desire to make his pictures his way, even if they didn’t seem viable to the studios he was working with.
Stylistically, A Fuller Life is structured in such a way that his autobiography is narrated by a multitude of former collaborators, set within Fuller’s own workspace. His vaults revealed an archive of his personal films: both of the situations he encountered and his personal life together with clips from his films which are also used as extracts in this piece. This is a film where the stars, the narrators, are renowned for their roles behind and in front of the camera as well as their relationship with Fuller. They also include (beyond those mentioned earlier): Jennifer Beals, Robert Carradine, Bill Duke, Clark Duke, James Franco, Monte Hellman, Buck Henry, Perry Lang, Tim Roth and James Toback.
A Fuller Life is essential viewing then for those interested in virtually any aspect of Sam Fuller’s remarkable life and wondrously individualistic creations.