There’s never been a war movie quite like The Big Red One, probably because there’s never been a director so qualified to make such a movie. Director Samuel Fuller started out as a journalist, served in the real Big Red One division, and turned his hand first to photojournalism and then to movies. Despite being his most personal film, and one of his most polished and professional works, The Big Red One was cut by 40 minutes on its initial release in 1980. It’s been unjustly forgotten over the years, but a painstaking effort by, among others, film critic Richard Schickel, has given us as near as we can get to Fuller’s original vision (Fuller died in 1997).
The Big Red One opens with a black-and-white prologue set in World War 1 France. A lone American soldier makes his way across no-man’s-land. He’s attacked by a battle-maddened horse, and then kills a German soldier only to learn that the armistice was signed a few hours earlier. Jump forward to World War 2 and that soldier is now a sergeant (Lee Marvin), leading the titular division, in particular four sharpshooters: Griff (Mark Hamill), Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco), Johnson (Kelly Ward), and Fuller’s stand-in, the cigar-chewing journalist Zab (Robert Carradine, who also narrates).
The film follows the division as they are sent from place to place – North Africa, France, Belgium. Along the way the four sharpshooters and their sergeant deal with ambushes, capture, the confusion of battle, the lulls in between battles, and the knowledge that at any moment they could be attacked or killed (or watch a comrade die).
The Big Red One has been criticized for being episodic, but that quality only enhances the realism of the movie. These men are ordinary soldiers who aren’t privy to the military decision-making and have no idea where they will be fighting from one day to the next, or why. Fuller uses the episodic nature of the movie to his advantage, creating setpieces that are funny, horrific, or even surreal (as when the division raids an insane asylum that’s being used by the Nazis as a command base).
Fuller also excels at portraying the humanity of the soldiers as well. Griff’s lapses into cowardice and the sergeant’s lingering guilt over the man he killed after the WWI armistice are particularly well done. Interestingly, Fuller also gives a certain amount of sympathy to the other side in his portrayal of Schroeder, a German officer whose story parallels and sometimes reflects, sometimes provides contrast to the American sergeant’s experiences.
The theme of the film, expressed by Zab near the end, is that the only glory in war is surviving. With all respect to Fuller, I’d beg to differ – the glory is surviving while still retaining one’s humanity. It’s easy to write these soldiers off as cold when we see their gallows humor and what seems like a lighthearted attitude toward death. But Fuller makes it very clear that those attitudes are just protection, and these men are still deeply affected by what they see. This is clearly shown in a haunting, nearly dialogue-free sequence in which the soldiers raid what turns out to be a concentration camp.
Fuller’s films are often strange beasts, blending cynicism with sentiment while laboring under budgetary constraints. It’s not hard to see why some critics didn’t take to his blends of tough-guy dialogue with unabashed sentiment and the mix doesn’t always work (note the bizarre musical interlude in the otherwise terrific The Naked Kiss). But despite a bit of melodramatic contrivance, The Big Red One manages to avoid these flaws. It even holds its own against films with far bigger budgets, making up in intimacy what it lacks in scope. An example is the Omaha Beach landing, in which the carnage is demonstrated by the simple effect of the waves washing over a dead soldier, the water becoming a deeper shade of crimson as the attack goes on.
In addition to the restored scenes, the DVD of The Big Red One has a wealth of extras. Disc one offers a commentary by Schickel. Disc two has two documentaries: one about the making of the reconstructed film, and one about Fuller. Other extras on the disc include alternate scenes, trailers, and more.
If you’ve any interest in war movies, or if you simply want to see a well-done portrait of conflict and how it affects its participants, by all means seek out The Big Red One.