Most people will know director Russ Meyer because of his somewhat sleazy career as a sexploitation filmmaker. But what many don’t realise is that Meyer learnt his craft photographing scenes of World War II during combat and spend the rest of his life very proud of what he had achieved during this experience, references of this time in his life scattered throughout his work and the strong bond he developed with some of his combat buddies lasting until the very end.
Meyer applied to be a volunteer combat photographer after seeing an advertisement placed in Popular Photography magazine by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He became part of the Signal Corps Reserve and eventually in November 1944 was appointed staff sergeant with the 166th Signal Photographic Company, the official photo unit in General Patton’s Third Army during the Second World War. The 166th Signal Photographic Company went on to become one of the most decorated outfits in European operations, with Meyer receiving one of the fifty-five Bronze Stars it garnered amongst a vast number of other accolades. To say that Russ may have found his calling during the War would be an understatement. He was very good at what he did and this was recognised not only by his fellow photographers but by the Captains who would have to critique each photographers work as and when it was sent in. Meyer frequently got ‘very good’ in his reports on his work in both film and still photos. Combat footage that he shot was used in the Oscar-winning short Eisenhower: True Glory (1945) and the 1970 releases The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and Patton. Footage that the Company shot can be viewed on this website but it doesn’t attribute it to any certain individuals.
Newsreel Unit 1. Meyer is in the middle row, third from the right. Charlies Sumners is top left.
Now it’s not uncommon knowledge that Meyer liked to embellish the stories he told, fabricating facts and, in some instances, stories in their entirety. One only needs to read his autobiography A Clean Breast to realise he contradicts himself at least once or twice. But there seems to be some element of truth in the fact that the original story for the novel and film The Dirty Dozen comes from an experience Meyer had during the War. Whilst in England, Meyer and fellow combat buddy Charlie Sumners were sent to a remote area to photograph the inhabitants of a prison stockade. All were heavily guarded, not allowed to talk, their legs bound in chains and once Meyer and Sumners had finished shooting footage it was promptly confiscated by the colonel in charge. Meyer recounted this tale to E. M. Nathanson in the 1950s who was interested and both tried to factually investigate what had happened but to no avail. In 1965, Nathanson had his novel based on the idea published which eventually became a film. Meyer ended up with ten per cent of Nathanson’s film deal, apparently calling the inmates ‘the Dirty Dozen’ in the first place. According to Sumners who was also there at the time, there were considerably more than a dozen of them.
Another interesting story that appears in Jimmy McDonagh’s biography of Meyer, Big Bosoms and Square Jaws, talks of an incident in which Meyer and Sumners were sent out to photograph a potential assassination attempt on Hitler and Goebbels. According to Sumners, this was another story fabricated by Meyer with no element of fact to it which is a real shame because what a story it was. Meyer would recall the time he was woken up in the middle of the night to go into a meeting headed by a Sixth Armored Division colonel and General Patton. Patton wanted Hitler and Goebbels assassinated and told Meyer he better be ‘damn careful about what he shot’. The following morning him and Sumners joined a team heading to Weimar where they found that Hitler and Goebbels had decided to return to Berlin instead and the mission was aborted. All, it would seem, a complete lie.
The Normandy Landing by Russ Meyer
World War II would also see Russ Meyer lose his virginity, largely thanks to Ernest Hemingway. One night Hemingway invited Meyer and a few of his buddies to the local whorehouse to have a night on him as he was friendly with the woman who ran it. It would seem that one girl there called Babette took a shine to Russ and gave him an experience that he never shut up about. Gloriously detailed and written in prose that a poet would blush at in A Clean Breast, Meyer illustrates the whole thing with a series of photographs showing a stiletto heel step on a cherry until it bursts. These ‘descriptive’ photographs aside, A Clean Breast also contains some terrific photos of a young Meyer in uniform and of his fellow Company men in action which are well worth a look at as it’s a whole side of the director that many people don’t know about. For us English there are also some beautiful shots of wartime Liverpool and Manchester which are great for historical value and some great sentimental shots of Meyer and his cohorts at the same places in the 1970s on one of their many reunion tours.
Meyer remained close friends with many of those he met during his time with the 166th Signal Photographic Company. Anthony James Ryan was a very close and faithful friend of Meyer’s until the very end, who ended up acting in, producing and writing some of Meyer’s films and almost became broke helping to finance some of the pictures. William ‘Bill’ Teas would wind up taking the lead in Meyer’s first feature-length effort The Immoral Mr. Teas, even lending his name to the now infamous titular character. Charlie Sumners and Meyer remained lifelong friends after their return to America, a picture of Sumners being the first image you see in Meyer’s ridiculously large autobiography. For all the reports of Meyer treating some of his friends badly, it would seem that he treated his fellow 166th buddies like the brothers he never had, organising reunions and dinners and even paying for some of them to attend when they didn’t have the funds themselves. It’s certainly a generosity that Meyer extended to very few people.
Charles ‘Charlie’ Sumners
During the 1960s, Meyer would express that he was ‘a rabid anti-communist’, probably in part due to the patriotism he developed during the War. This, and his distaste for the Nazi’s, would eventually run through his later work, with his 1968 picture Vixen! being a thinly disguised attack against communism which see’s the ‘all-American’ Vixen rise up against it and save the day (if you really want to believe that’s what the film is actually about under all the sex…). Meyer would frequently refer to Nazi’s in his work which some people have also put down to the fact that his absent father also happened to be German. ‘Martin Bormann’ pops up in Beneath the Valley of the Ultra-Vixens (1979) and in full Nazi regalia in earlier flick Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) which see’s him get murdered in an assassination that I have no doubt Meyer wished actually happened during the War. Supervixens (1975) employs German marching music, Nazi references and a Martin Bormann character again. 1976 release Up! centres around the mysterious death of former Nazi Adolf Schwartz who is so obviously based on Hitler it doesn’t need further explanation. Whilst not about World War II specifically, Russ Meyer was one of the first directors to explore the idea of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in veterans, using Motorpsycho (1965) to depict a disturbed Vietnam vet.
Russ Meyer’s experiences during the war certainly contributed to his visual style, filmmaking technique and military-esque production schedules that ran like clockwork. Like other film producers, directors and photographers, it’s nice to read that Meyer acknowledged that this was where it all started for him. The skills that he learnt and the passion that he developed for filmmaking only increased and developed upon his return to the States once the War had finished. Who knows what Meyer would have gotten up to had he not decided to reply to that ad he saw all those years ago…