It didn't come to pass.
A bridge of sorts between the grand heroic gestures of feel-good war classics like The Great Escape and The Longest Day and ostensibly grittier works like Saving Private Ryan, The Big Red One is more truly cynical than any of them, focused almost obsessively on the need to survive. Victory is second-place. Although bigger in size than just about any war film of the last half-century (excepting only Patton, perhaps), it's really a personal story about four dogfaces in the First Infantry Division (a.k.a. The Big Red One) and their grizzled World War I-leftover sergeant, as they slog their way from the beaches of North Africa and across Europe, leaving a trail of dead, mostly nameless replacements behind them. The four horsemen of Samuel Fuller. And in case you missed the point that this is not a movie about war, it's about death, there's a framing segment where we see the sergeant (Lee Marvin, cold-eyed and hollow-looking) kill a German in World War I just hours after the Armistice has been signed, unbeknownst to him; a tragedy that will happen again at the end of the next war.
A newspaperman and novelist before he became a filmmaker, Fuller was always pulled in two directions - the tabloid desire to shock and entertain, and the journalist's need to inform with reality - but he still wanted to make sure his audience knew what they were in for. At the start of The Big Red One, these words are splashed up on the screen: "This is fictional life based on factual death." He's saying what you are about to see is real, only not really. Don't kid yourself. The movie is in the end more entertaining than shocking, though there are a number of moments that leave a cold chill in their wake.
Included in these moments is possibly the most resonant single line in any war film, uttered as the squad makes their way through a ruined village. Zab (Robert Carradine), the struggling novelist who thinks of himself as the Hemingway of the Bronx and provides the narration, says, "You want to know how to smoke out a sniper? You send a guy out in the open and you see if he gets shot." It's a funny line, with an acid tinge to it, but something more as well. Funny or not, there's a dead-eyed logic to it, as, honestly, how else could you really do it, short of bombing into dust every possible hiding space in front of your unit? It's a view of war in which the soldiers truly are expendable, ordered out into the open one after another, because what else can be done?
If only the film as a whole could have lived up to the cold wisdom of that moment. Determined to stuff in as much as possible, Fuller tries to cover the whole experience of the war, and seems to have spread himself thin. Visually, The Big Red One is somewhat of a mess, with little sense of cohesion. Many have said before that for an epic, it sure looks more like a TV movie, cheap and quickly shot, and that's sadly correct. The dry landscapes of Israel (where most of the film was shot) substitute too generically for Africa, Italy, and parts of Western Europe. And although stories abound of Fuller firing off a loaded .45 to get his cast's attention, the performances from his four horsemen - a competent but pallid bunch including Carradine, Kelly Ward, Bobby Di Cicco, and Mark Hamill - are hardly inspired. Only Lee Marvin, stalking through the film with a killer's determination, leaves a serious impact. Fuller, sensing perhaps a kindred spirit in the fellow veteran, did what few other directors could (they often preferred to shoot him iconically, as a kind of darker, malevolent John Wayne), tapping into a bitter sadness in Marvin that gives the film enough spine to carry through to the ragged end.
Fuller wanted to convey everything he could about the experience of war - the excitement, the horror, the tedium - and not surprisingly, he couldn't pack it all in. You can see it in flashes, the sniper scene, the sergeant's motto ("We don't murder. We kill."), and the scene near the end when the squad liberates a concentration camp where the furnaces are still smoking. And in those flashes is more truth than Spielberg came close to including in Ryan, more visually appealing and cohesive for sure, but conservative also, ultimately following those old war movie rules.
There is greatness in The Big Red One, muffled though it may sometimes be.
Warner Bros. did right by Fuller with their excellent presentation of The Big Red One in a two-disc set of last year's theatrical re-release of the extended cut, subtitled The Reconstruction. There's some 40 minutes of previously cut footage that's been painstakingly restored to the film (after a long fight with the studio, the original theatrical release was far from what Fuller had intended), as well as numerous alternate and deleted scenes, with commentary. Almost better, though, are the pair of documentaries, one on the making of the film, and the other on Fuller himself. An exhilarating figure, the white-haired, gravel-voiced B.S. artist who was never without a cigar and a pulpy anecdote (occasionally true), Fuller was always the real star of his films, regardless of who was on screen, something made abundantly clear in this lovingly presented DVD package.
Run time: 113 mins
In Theaters: Wednesday 28th May 1980
Box Office Worldwide: $7.2M
Distributed by: United Artists
Production compaines: Lorac Productions, Lorimar Productions
Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Fresh: 40 Rotten: 4
IMDB: 7.2 / 10
Director: Samuel Fuller
Producer: Gene Corman
Screenwriter: Samuel Fuller
Starring: Lee Marvin as The Sergeant, Mark Hamill as Pvt. Griff, 1st Squad, Robert Carradine as Pvt. Zab, 1st Squad, Bobby Di Cicco as Pvt. Vinci, 1st Squad, Kelly Ward as Pvt. Johnson, 1st Squad, Stéphane Audran as Underground Walloon fighter at asylum, Siegfried Rauch as Schroeder (German sergeant), Serge Marquand as Rensonnet, Charles Macaulay as General / Captain, Alain Doutey as Broban (Vichy sergeant), Maurice Marsac as Vichy colonel, Colin Gilbert as Dog Face POW, Joseph Clark as Pvt. Shep (soldier on troop transport), Ken Campbell as Pvt. Lemchek (#2 on Bangalore torpedo), Doug Werner as Switolski, Perry Lang as Pvt. Kaiser, 1st Squad
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