Few directors have launched their careers with a display of versatility equal to Samuel Fuller’s first three films: a Western (1949’s I Shot Jesse James), a melodrama (1950’s The Baron of Arizona) and a war movie (1951’s The Steel Helmet), all of which display a seemingly effortless command of their respective genres. And, as this invaluable collection reveals, they share a plainspoken style that makes them far more accessible to modern viewers than many films of the era. The period characters in Jesse James and Arizona talk like people you’d meet on the street today, and it’s almost disorienting (but in a good way) to find African-Americans and Asians who aren’t walking catalogs of cringe-inducing stereotypes.
The most famous film here is The Steel Helmet, but there’s a lot to be said for Jesse James, which offers a noirish account of the outlaw’s death at the hands of Bob Ford (John Ireland). Ford expects to find fortune and true love when he shoots his gangmate in the back and claims the $10,000 reward; instead, the public and press respond as if he were Judas Iscariot, John Wilkes Booth and Mark David Chapman rolled into one. The lightest of the bunch is Arizona, in which the unbelievably exposition-heavy opening sequence is a small price to pay for the delicious performance by Vincent Price as a con man eyeballing every square inch of the 48th state. The Steel Helmet, the first-ever Korean War movie, is a flat-out masterpiece. No actor has more vividly embodied a grizzled infantry sergeant than Gene Evans does, and the closing onscreen text (this story has no end) is one of the most direct and unpretentious antiwar statements there is.