Though Lee Marvin and Sam Fuller did not live to see the 2004 reconstituted version of THE BIG RED ONE, I think both would be enormously proud of the restoration of one of their finest films. Though not a "director's cut," the DVD, with an exceptional commentary by critic Richard Schiekel, and running nearly three hours, gives us the gritty, infantryman's view of World War II that Fuller wanted us to see. The longer version has a stronger narrative flow as the movie follows a unit of young American GI's and their much older Sergeant (a veteran of WWI) through a series of battles with Germans, starting with North Africa and ending with the liberation of a concentration camp in Germany at the war's end. There is one marvelously staged and striking scene after another, as these young men go from one theater of battle to another, starting out as fresh and nervous recruits and ending up as battle hardened vets, sticking together and surviving one deadly encounter with the Nazis after another, outlasting most of the replacements who come to fill the ranks; and all the time led by Marvin's tough Sergeant, in a role that fit him as perfectly as his uniform. The young men are played by Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine (as a character based on Fuller himself), Bobby Di Cicco, and Kelly Ward; all of whom should have gone on to be much bigger stars. Seigfried Rauch is Schroeder, a German counterpart to Marvin's Sergeant, who comes in and out of the story multiple times before the fateful final scene. One of the replacements is played by Perry Lang, whose face is familiar to anyone who watched a lot of teen comedies back in the day.
What struck me most about this film is its lack of typical Hollywood war movie theatrics and heroics, as when Marvin's Sergeant is reunited with the young men in his squad after being briefly captured during the battle at the Kasserine Pass, where most of his untested squad threw down their rifles and fled the Germans. You expect Marvin to tear them a new one when he finds them relaxing on a North African beach, which would have happened if John Wayne (who had once been considered for the part in the 50's) had played the character. Instead, Fuller stages the reunion in a long shot, we don't hear a word, but the emotion of the moment is clear. Hamill's sensitive Griff, has a problem with pulling the trigger when face to face with the enemy, yet in every other way, he is a competent, brave and effective soldier (especially in the D-Day sequence), yet Griff is never confronted by his fellow infantrymen, never called "yellow" and forced to prove his courage to the satisfaction of others. There is a point to this subplot and Fuller resolves it in the finale. We get the full sense of the combat soldier's view of this world, where the ground was constantly shifting under their feet: they are charging into a German held building and taking fire in the afternoon, and then one of them is having sex with female partisan that evening; being shot at from snipers on the way to eliminating an 88 gun, and once the deadly mission is completed, sitting down to dinner with grateful Italians. There is the constant presence of children, over and over, Fuller returns them and shows in vivid ways the impact of war upon them; this is another thing rooted in Fuller's own wartime experience. This has to be the first film to note that American soldiers died from heat attacks on the front lines. The film had a limited budget, but Fuller did amazing things with it, they only had a couple of tanks to use, but you would never know it except from Schiekel's commentary; the D-Day scene may pale in comparison with the one in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, or THE LONGEST DAY, but it works within this movie. There is the expected blood and gore, but nothing like what Sam Peckinpah would have done if he'd been the director; I think Fuller would have considered that exploitative and disrespectful.
Why did THE BIG RED ONE fail at the box office? By the summer of 1980, the era of the big World War II epic of the late 50's and 60's had passed and there seemed to be nothing more to say about a conflict fading into history; APOCALYPSE NOW was playing in theaters and audiences wanted to see movies about Vietnam; they wanted to see Mark Hamill fight Darth Vader with a light saber, not shoot Germans with an M-1 rifle. The only person anyone wanted to see fighting Nazis in the 80's was Indiana Jones. Another good movie had fallen victim to bad timing. After the failure of THE BIG RED ONE and the shelving of his controversial film, WHITE DOG, the following year, Sam Fuller turned his back on Hollywood for good, working in Europe for many years; truly our loss.
Yet, it stands now as one of the great American war films, and a definitive statement on the men who defeated Hitler's war machine. THE BIG RED ONE is moving, but brutally unsentimental, horrific and funny at the same time, a film that gets better with repeat viewings. Wherever they are, I am sure Lee Marvin and Sam Fuller would be well pleased with how it turned out.
The Big Red One
Action / Drama / War
The Big Red One
Action / Drama / War
The story of a hardened army Sergeant and four of his men from their first fight at the Kasserine Pass after the invasion of North Africa through to the invasion of Sicily, D-Day, the Ardennes forest and the liberation of a concentration camp at the end of the war. As the five of them fight - and survive to fight yet again in the next battle - new recruits joining the squad are swatted down by the enemy on a regular basis. The four privates are naturally reluctant to get to know any of the new recruits joining the squad, who become just a series of nameless faces.
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May 01, 2014 at 12:57 PM