For nearly 25 years, Marsha Gordon has had a thing for Samuel Fuller. It all started when she saw Fuller’s 1953 crime thriller “Pickup on South Street,” while attending the University of Maryland in the early ’90s as a grad student. Drawn by the filmmaker’s hard-nosed, no-nonsense style, she eventually became a hardcore Fuller fan. During the aughts, she wrote several pieces on the man and his work for film journals and quarterlies – so a book was going to happen eventually.
Titled “Film is Like a Battleground: Sam Fuller’s War Movies” (Oxford University Press), it’s a rare, critical analysis of the late, cigar-chomping, forever underappreciated filmmaker (born 1912; died 1997) and the movies he did during his lifetime. But while Fuller may be known for neo-noirs like “Underworld U.S.A.” and “The Naked Kiss” and social commentary-heavy melodramas like “White Dog” (which was never released because the studio worried that it would be seen as racist despite its indictment of racism), Gordon concentrates more on his war movies. As she says in the book, the war-movie genre “was nearest and dearest to him, the one he used to convey the most important of the ideas he engaged with during his long career.”
Gordon, an N.C. State film studies professor, spent five years writing and researching ”Battleground,” going into deep detail about not just his war films but the footage he shot while serving as an Army infantryman in World War II, such as the 1945 liberation of a German concentration camp.
“I spent a lot of time traveling the country,” says Gordon, 45, as she munches on a black-bean burger at a downtown Raleigh restaurant, “going to archives, digging through old papers and looking at 16- and 8-mm film and really trying to unearth a lot of the backstory that’s never been talked about in print.”
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Gordon reached out to Fuller’s widow, Christa, and daughter, Samantha, who directed a 2013 documentary on her father titled “A Fuller Life” (which Gordon hosted a screening of a couple of years ago at the now-closed Colony Theatre). Gordon wrote to the widow, who eventually let Gordon peruse her husband’s personal archives. “She was kind enough to invite me to her home, and she has a lot of his papers still, and photographs,” Gordon remembers. “I went, at least, once a year to spend time with his papers for five years.”
As someone who was always a champion of Fuller’s work, Gordon began appreciating Fuller more while writing “Battleground.” She learned that Fuller often had to battle – whether it was with studios or with the FBI, who had a thick file on him – just to get his films made.
“I can honestly say, when I started writing this book, I and – I would say – most people have no idea how war movies were actually made, how they were treated by the government, how they were scrutinized within Hollywood and by all these various agencies,” Gordon says. “It was risky to make films about war, especially about contemporary wars.”
Gordon will be introducing one of these films, the 1951 Korean conflict drama “The Steel Helmet,” at N.C. State’ s James B. Hunt Jr. Library on Wednesday. She will also lead a discussion after the screening, where she’ll most likely talk about how this film led Fuller to make more war movies. “In terms of his career, it was a low-budget, independently made film that became hugely profitable,” she says, “and it allowed him to basically write his ticket to make the films that he wanted to make after that.”
Now that she’s officially a Fuller historian thanks to “Battleground,” Gordon will be touring the country and the world, lecturing and introducing screenings. On Saturday, she’ll be speaking and introducing movies at UCLA’s Hammer Museum and, later this summer, making Fuller-related stops in Washington, D.C., and Amsterdam. She’s looking forward to schooling people more on Fuller, a Russian Jewish immigrant/war veteran/veteran filmmaker who, even when he was criticizing this country’s actions on celluloid, was still a proud patriot.
He was a hero and a fighter, both on the battlefield and on the big screen. No wonder the gal’s still crazy about him.
What: “The Steel Helmet,” with introduction and discussion with Marsha Gordon
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: James B. Hunt Jr. Library, 1070 Partners Way
“Film is Like a Battleground: Sam Fuller’s War Movies”
By Marsha Gordon
Oxford University Press, 330 pages