Often when we 80s kids talk about growing up in that golden age of cinema, we refer to slasher films like A Nightmare on Elm Street or Friday the 13th, or the angsty dramedies of John Hughes, or comedies such as The Goonies or Ghostbusters, but we can’t overlook or underestimate the reach and influence and the hours of sheer enjoyment brought to us by the Cannon Group with their slew of action films, such the American Ninja and Missing In Action series, Avenging Force, Delta Force, Revenge of the Ninja, that grand trio of late 80s Tobe Hooper films, and so many others. Producer, director, and human bulldozer Menahem Golan was the driving force behind these films, as the man who controlled the purse strings, with a powerful, maniacal vision. But director Sam Firstenberg was the director to actually shepard many of Cannon’s best films (not directed by Tobe Hooper) through production. Just consider Ninja III: The Domination for example, a ninja movie, that opens with a huge action set piece, becomes a possession movie, that becomes an action horror revenge tale, with a formidable female lead. Who makes that movie? The guy that made Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, that’s who!
Firstenberg was born in Poland, but grew up in Israel, and studied film in Los Angeles, when he went to work for Golan, himself from Israel, and a protégé of Roger Corman. Though a drama with Kirstie Alley, One More Chance, came first, it was another movie that same year that established Firstenberg’s name in martial arts action films of the 80s, Revenge of the Ninja. Starring martial arts icon Sho Kosugi, in his first American role, the film was full of the mysticism and mystique of the ninja, that had been established in earlier Japanese films, but set in modern day America. The formula of East meets West, Asian action mixed with American action proved to be a huge hit that spawned countless other films, not to mention multiple cartoons, like GI Joe, which played like a sci-fi/super hero knock-off of Firstenberg’s greatest hits. Golan himself, among others, also churned out more ninja films (Golan’s being Enter the Ninja with Franco Nero), but they never compared to Firstenberg’s. Just look how fast American Ninja dipped in quality without him at the helm.
I loved ninjas, like most of the boys my age. I collected the Ninja magazine, ninja action figures, watched any movie with a ninja, and collected actual ninja weapons. For fuck sake I was a little arms dealer in elementary school, trading for real throwing stars and a butterfly knife that I still have to this day. (I remember my step-dad confiscating my fourth throwing star, yelling with exasperation, ‘where do you keep getting these damn things?’) I didn’t even know Sam Firstenberg’s name or connected that the best of those ninja films were made by the same guy. Back then I only knew three directors; George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Ridley Scott, but when the opportunity came up to review a book on Firstenberg, my stockpile of useless information, random factoids, dumb movie trivia, remembered his name as one of the Cannon Group directors and looked up which films were his.
Though he made 22 feature films since 1979, my experience with his work was from 1983 (the aforementioned Revenge) to 1987 (American Ninja 2), when a chance double feature of Halloween II and Night of the Living Dead killed the ninja in my heart and replaced it with an unhealthy obsession with horror. So, while reading Marco Siedelmann’s impressive biography, I had to go back and check out some of these films again, wondering/worrying whether they would still hold up. Yes, I see flaws in performances that I didn’t notice before and no not all of the special effects are as impressive as they were, but one thing remains true more than thirty years later; Firstenberg’s films still hold up as fun, exciting, and highly entertaining dives into action and exploitation. Certainly, worthy of a book.
Siedelmann, though, couldn’t just write a normal biography on a director’s life and work. No, he had to go and one up everyone with a massive 750 page coffee table book featuring hours upon hours of interviews with Firstenberg on his childhood, his journey to filmmaking, through his filmography to today. Packed with anecdotes and behind the scenes pictures, Stories from the Trenches is in and of itself a mighty work of art and a glorious labor of love. Firstenberg reminisces about the numerous great actors and filmmakers he worked with throughout the years, which included Charles Band (Full Moon Entertainment), Richard Roundtree (Shaft), Grace Jones (Vamp), Eric Roberts (The Dark Knight), and many more. He comes off as such a likable person, the interview format of the book becomes a joy to read and the conversational tone is very welcoming. The sheer size of this book may seem daunting at first and it’s certainly not easy to kick back and relax with it, but once I became invested in Firstenberg’s tale that becomes irrelevant. I found a lot of the stories about the VHS boom and Hollywood in the 80s the most interesting, but I’m not familiar with the second half of his career, so that’s been fun and interesting to read about.
Stories from the Trenches earns its high marks for the its depth and presentation. You can find other books like it, but how many have the physical and narrative weight. Siedelmann’s dedication to his subject is inspiring and if you’ve ever been entertained by the Cannon Group for even a single movie, this book is worth a spot on your shelf.