The Big Red One

(USA - 1980)

by Mike Lorefice

Cast: Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine, Bobby Di Cicco, Kelly Ward
Genre: War
Director: Samuel Fuller
Screenplay: Samuel Fuller
Cinematography: Adam Greenberg
Composer: Dana Kaproff
Runtime: 163 minutes

Twenty-five years later a wandering epic that covers the entire liberation from the perspective of a small group of infantrymen has emerged as the greatest World War II film. Big Red One is very much Samuel Fuller's story, or at least the Reconstruction version is. Fuller was the first to get a Korean War film made, with his marvelous The Steel Helmet coming out in the midst of the fighting, but since the 1950's he had always been unsuccessful in getting his World War II film made. His service in the titled rifle squad defined his life in many ways, as his attempts to depict what he saw and learned during the war defined his film career.

Fuller reduces the worldwide conflict to a very intimate one, working with the perspective of a few soldiers in generally insignificant combat. Occasionally a major battle is depicted, but even D-Day is shown with tight focus on the Sergeant and the four surviving privates almost as if they existed apart from everything else. Even though rarely attempted, that is exactly the perspective a war film can successfully provide. It's not the war, our war or everyone's war, but rather their war because no matter how many men they fight beside and across from, they are ultimately their own island. It might sound like Fuller is falling into the same old action film trap, but this isn't one of those movies like The Patriot that makes it seem like the dynamic duo of Mel Gibson & Heath Ledger won the Revolutionary War by themselves. Fuller never makes any of his characters seem larger than life. There's no mythmaking and no heroes, just the story of a few men who were lucky enough to escape with their lives.

There's no glory in the soldier's work; soldiers fight and live or fight and die. "A good soldier surrenders when he's defeated, so he can live to kill his enemy another day." Though the Nazi Schroeder utters these words, they are not cowardly and actually further Fuller's point that survival is ultimately all that matters. They remind us of Gene Evans signature line in The Steel Helmet, "Dead man's nothing but a corpse." Fuller, never afraid to go to extremes, doesn't shy away from the fact that men do things that are physically, morally, and spiritually detestable in war. They simply do what they must to persevere, but where Fuller differs is the horror is not meant to come from their actions but from their surroundings.

I'd argue that Big Red One is not an anti-war movie. It makes observations about men in war, but not the men that make the war. Fuller believes the results of war can be worthwhile or they can be wasteful, but that part is out of the soldier's hands and Fuller is not out to make black and white political statements. He believes some politicians fight for grand notions, but when you are actually on the battlefield, at most, you protect the guy next to you. Though the soldiers don't usually make mankind look good, the film is quite simply pro soldier. In situations like theirs you can't blame a man of any country for doing whatever it takes. The American soldiers are not portrayed as being fearless warriors who are above the actions of the enemy; soldiers from every country are more or less the same. They soldier on until they no longer can.

One poignant scene takes place early on when the American soldiers liberate France from German control. The Americans believe they are doing good, freeing locals from an unwanted aggressive foreign controlling power. However, they are not encountering Germans in this scene, they are going head to head with French citizens who support German control. So the question becomes whether they are willing to kill the people they are supposed to be saving? Almost any other director would just give you a black and white scene where the good Americans were killing the bad Germans, but Fuller opens up all the gray areas.

One of Fuller's points is war reduces men to insane irrational animals. War is about killing sane people as the leaders rarely die and the asylum protects the other loonies. Fuller makes this point, and many others, humorously in an absurd scene where the fighting spills into a mental institution. All the inmates ignore the shootout except the lone sane one, who shoots everyone he can from both sides until he's killed.

One aspect that makes Big Red One such an amazing accomplishment is the budget. I know I always stress better films are made with less money because artistic freedom is traded for cash, but Fuller's directing in Big Red One is simply amazing because he's constantly forced to work with smoke and mirrors. His epic covers three years of war, which is never cheap to reproduce, and it's achieved in 10 weeks for $4 million. The scenes are highly edited, often because they had to be. They couldn't afford more than one or two ships or tanks, a fact they had to hide fact with creative framing and cutting, but what's important is the film is always coherent enough where the editing adds to the suspense rather than creates confusion.

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Big Red One doesn't have a lot of big names, and while the fact that they couldn't afford them is certainly a factor, the film works much better for it. Mark Hamill did make the film after starring in Star Wars, and there's the always dependable and often memorable Lee Marvin. The casting of Marvin, who fought in the South Pacific during the real war, is certainly the most important. The film would have failed with one of those generic handsome heroic tough guys because that type of star implies a kind of superiority, heroism, and supremacy of one side/point of view. Marvin is wise, experienced and intimidating, but the important qualities he brings to the role are his tired, gaunt, and bony look and his cold persona. He is not there to be anyone's friend. He may like some of his dogfaces, but ultimately his job is to keep them moving forward. The soldiers need and love for him contributes to their survival, but he's not their buddy and can't succeed if he values their lives as much as they do.

Marvin's battle weary sergeant is a holdover from WW1 who is haunted by the appropriateness and inappropriateness of killing. He blew away a German four hours after the WW1 cease-fire because he didn't know the fighting had stopped. Killing someone in war, which he did countless times, was no big deal to him or anyone else because it's what you are supposed to do. However, doing so after is suddenly murder even though it takes months, years, maybe more than a lifetime for those who actually fought to readjust. Marvin is not the focus of the film, though he gives a tremendous performance.

Private Zab (Bobby Carradine) provides the narration, giving the soldiers perspective on why everything went down as it did. Zab is simply a survivor, and during the actual events he's often in the background. Though this ballsy writer is rightfully considered the Fuller character, the other three main privates also represent various sides of Fuller. Griff (Hamill) is the sensitive debating cartoonist, Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco) the lighthearted joker, and Johnson (Kelly Ward) the naive unprepared youngster only concerned with whatever he was doing.

This is a collective film with no men of uncommon valor. Griff is probably the main soldier if there is one because he has an issue to conquer. Rather than being the traditional top gun he's the one that freezes in battle. He's a great shot, but can't look a man in the eyes and fire upon him. Throughout the picture he consistently refuses to even be a killer. Finally, he becomes or dreams of becoming a murderer by killing a bulletless German soldier after seeing the atrocities of the holocaust. If the scene is to be taken realistically, like Marvin, he survives but his own principles have been irrevocably compromised.

Fuller's work is generally not meant to be overly realistic. It is at times, but what he goes for are passionate feelings. He recreates actual events and experiences with bold radical shifts in form and method. His films are a personal canvas of emotion. People may consider that his failure, he tries to put everything in one way or another and this ambition always exceeds what he's able and allowed to depict. But it's certainly what makes his films unique, and probably what makes them brilliant. Fuller would point out the absurdity of the very idea of realism when making a war film when he'd talk about having to shoot at and even kill some of the audience members. The point is not to recreate the physical, but the internal, and to do so in the present because the soldier lacks the ability to plot his own course. He is simply a tool forced to live, act, and fight in the instant. In this regard, the mood shifts are successful. A person has so many states and frames of mind in a given day, and Fuller probably touches on all of them at one time or another. That said, it's not all about experience, but rather feelings and even possibilities. What Fuller depicts is what goes through his head in reality and nightmare, in desire and fear, a mix of the real and surreal.

Fuller puts in all kinds of absurdities no one else would include. Whether or not they are true, they make it more lifelike because you never expect them. When you can't see something coming it tends to come off really honest or dishonest. Fuller isn't toying and manipulating the audience with twists, his personality and guts just send him in directions that others should take but don't or won't. Much off what he films is true, but even if it wasn't his films would come off as incredibly honest because you feel like no one would have made that up. Fact is a big part of Fuller conveying his wartime experiences, but allegory is almost as important to Fuller. Ultimately, all his feelings, emotions, and dreams are combined into one ever shifting tapestry. Suddenness is his motif, especially of action.

To some extent every Fuller movie is an action movie since action to Fuller is depicting all the internal and external stirrings. Where he goes beyond the traditional action genre is in hitting on all the important issues facing the soldier. His film is not about the fighting; he simply has a subject where violence can't be avoided. The big difference between this and so many newer films is Fuller has a lot to say in between the action, and though Fuller is not a director you'd associate with subtlety he does go about this in subtle ways. This is not a film that needs the action to be good or interesting like the newer Star Wars arguably are (though I personally find nothing even remotely watchable about Lucas' recent exercises in obviously phony effects). What makes Big Red One a memorable film is Fuller's unique ability to work in all the antics, shenanigans, and little comic moments. He creates characters that are both entertaining and real, who are nothing special but we hope they survive because we can relate to them. War to Fuller isn't John Wayne cleaning up, it's a bunch of scared truck drivers and salesman tossed into ragtag units and asked to traipse across beaches and jungles.

Fuller's fear every time he made a war film is it would turn out to be a recruiting film. No matter how noble his intentions were, he felt the film would be dubious if even one man signed up after seeing it. One tactic Fuller used to prevent enlistment was to avoid graphic violence. Some would say Fuller's view on violence was very traditional, trying him to the style of filmmaking of the production code era, but the truth behind his refusal to use squibs is probably closer to him simply failing to see any benefit in them.

All the layers, perspectives, quagmires, and emotions of war are captured without ever being announced. The brilliance of the film is he rarely focuses on any event. People complain that the big battles only last a few minutes, but the majority of war is down time. No director ever worked harder to capture the dullness of war than Fuller did here. The soldiers are mainly bored to death by idling, trying to keep their mind off the fact a bomb can blow them to bits at any time. Characters are regularly shown clowning around; their nonsensical banter distracts them from the danger ahead. Fuller is the only director that's willing to admit that soldiers spend only a very small percentage of the time actually fighting. And beyond that, he's willing to show they are all scared to death. There's no machismo in his film; Fuller ignores the fronts and gets down to the shared characteristics. Due to the fact Fuller is willing to show so many scenes where nothing major is happening, Big Red One does the best job of any war film when it comes to capturing the fact that danger comes out of nowhere or evolves. In the midst of a joke or a fantasy a bomb might be dropped; that is war. The film is purposely completely unpredictable. Fate is unpredictable, with life and death being anyone's guess at any time.

Fuller is an in your face director. Eliminate the or from his job description and you have his style. Fuller's directness works because he has balls and isn't preachy. He's so damn funny, funny to the point this film is funnier than almost any comedy. Though comic scenes like the soldiers putting condoms on their fingertips to aid a woman in giving birth are unforgettable, none of the humor is there to fill time or because some suit decided the film needs to be funny. Fuller believes stating your points are for non-visual mediums. By making everything absurd he doesn't make his film unbelievable, he questions the entire notion of warfare without every saying so.

Fuller may have made better films, but he never made one where he said more without words. The biggest losers in war are children. Fuller shows the two results, kids die or become pathetic lost souls that are turned into tough little adults without sentimentality. The most memorable scene involving children comes near the end when Marvin rescues a boy from a concentration camp. He brings him out into the light and the boy puts Marvin's helmet on. It's a big deal for the kid, who looks up to Marvin perhaps for the fact he's risked his life to attempt to save him, certainly for what he feels he represents. Marvin takes the helmet away to show it's not what he might think, but laughs it off because after all the kid is about to die. After all he's gone through it's amazing he still remembers what it's like to be a child again. It's a very touching moment where Marvin realizes he can give the kid a few moments of joy, but unfortunately no more as he's too far gone.

Schroeder's character is the weak point because he seems to encompass every negative stereotype about the Nazis, not to mention finally touching on their homosexuality. Though there is nothing good about him, Fuller manages to make him Marvin's counterpart in many ways, as his primary goal is to live. Ultimately, Fuller tries to show the soldiers are more similar to this enemy soldier because he survives than they are to all their own fallen soldiers. Zab says, "Saving that Kraut was the final joke of the whole goddamn war. I mean, we had more in common with him than with all our replacements who got killed whose names we never even knew. We all made it through. We were alive. I'm going to dedicate my book to those who shot but didn't get shot because it's about survivors and surviving is the only glory in war if you know what I mean."

Fortunately, enough of the footage Fuller shot in the late 1970's survived to finally bring something resembling his vision to the screen 25 years after the original release. The studio broke his heart by cutting Big Red One it down to half of his vision without his approval. Their editing was disastrous because they removed portions of scenes, adding a voice-over narration that should have been unnecessary largely to try to make sense out of the gaps they'd created. Even though the version released in 1980 was hardly the film he envisioned, a fact he didn't hide, Fuller had invested so much into it he couldn't bring himself to disown it. Richard Schickel and Brian Jamieson's restoration based on Fuller's script is not a director's cut by any means, but it's a deeper, more complete and intelligent version done by people who understand and have a passion for Fuller's work. It's a restoration that's been made with the best of intentions, and a rare case where outsiders have been able to live up to the ideal.



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