Documentaries on filmmakers haven't had the best of years - Altman worked as an overview but lacked depth, and this roundup of writer-director Sam Fuller's life is rather ropey. But credit is due for at least trying to do something different.
A Fuller Life attempts not only to be a biography of Samuel Fuller but also an insight to the thinking behind the ‘ballsy yarns' Fuller was noted for writing. He wrote complex roles for black actors in an era when no one did, about cynical soldiers, scumbags, madness - all taboo (one unproduced script was called Stars and Swastika - one can only imagine the edgy material within).
Directed lovingly and respectfully by his daughter Samantha Fuller, this documentary slips through her father's early years as a freelance reporter in Depression era America, and chronicles his rise through the Hollywood ranks. But A Fuller Life is at its strongest during the WWII segment, his experience in Europe influencing his war movies: China Gate, The Steel Helmet, Hell and High Water, Fixed Bayonets, Merrill's Marauders and, of course, 1980's The Big Red One (unfortunately the ins and outs of the cuts enforced on Fuller go unexplored here). There are wonderful anecdotes, like sneaking backstage to meet Marlene Dietrich when she entertained the troops, and the haunting stories surrounding the discovery of the Falkenau concentration camp (Fuller documented the liberation on his camera).
But Samantha Fuller's approach is questionable. She has actors Fuller worked with - Hammil and Robert Carradine (The Big Red One), Jennifer Beals (Madonna And The Dragon) and Bill Duke (Street Of No Return) - sit, surrounded by Fuller's movie and war memorabilia, and read with gusto from Fuller's memoir The Third Face, pushing emotion into the lines and generally acting out the scenes Fuller describes on the pages. Directors Joe Dante and William Friedkin pitch in too, chewing enthusiastically on the big cigars Fuller loved.
While that doesn't sound so bad, the delivery from all concerned can't be described as their best work. Bill Duke in particular is stilted, forced, amateurish, embarrassing. He's not helped by the shoddy camerawork during his segment, with the wonky framing unsure what the actor is going to do next. These scenes feel unrehearsed. But Samantha Fuller does save things from being a complete disaster with her use of movie clips and rare photographs.
Fans will love it, others will struggle to know what all the fuss is about.