The Big Red One

"Good"

The Big Red One Review


The cult of Samuel Fuller, while abated somewhat in recent years (if for no other reason than a lack of new films to carp about), is still in full force in most corners of filmdom, and for good reason. Unlike the precious auteurs of the latter part of the century, with their idealistic rages against the monolith of Hollywood, Fuller was a guy who knew how to work within the system, for a time at least, and make movies both his way and in a way that would get the suits to pay for them. While Fuller's heyday was the 1950s and '60s, his last hurrah (with the exception of a couple smaller film and TV projects) didn't come until 1980, when he was almost 70 years old. The Big Red One was meant to be the culmination of a life's work, an epic story that would allow Fuller to use his ugly experiences as a veteran to puncture the hallowed fictions of World War II cinema, while still delivering a rock 'em, sock 'em Lee Marvin war movie.

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.

Bombs away.



The Big Red One

Facts and Figures

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

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 3 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 91%
Fresh: 40 Rotten: 4

IMDB: 7.2 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director:

Producer:

Starring: as The Sergeant, as Pvt. Griff, 1st Squad, as Pvt. Zab, 1st Squad, as Pvt. Vinci, 1st Squad, as Pvt. Johnson, 1st Squad, Stéphane Audran as Underground Walloon fighter at asylum, 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, as Pvt. Kaiser, 1st Squad

Also starring: ,

Contactmusic


Links



Advertisement

New Movies

Colossal Movie Review

Colossal Movie Review

It's rare to find a movie that so defiantly refuses to be put into a...

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword Movie Review

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword Movie Review

It's unlikely that Guy Ritchie could make a boring movie if he wanted to. This...

Snatched Movie Review

Snatched Movie Review

It doesn't really matter that the script for this lively action-comedy is paper thin: teaming...

Jawbone Movie Review

Jawbone Movie Review

Boxing movies aren't usually this thoughtful. Sure, there are plenty of punchy moments in the...

Whisky Galore! Movie Review

Whisky Galore! Movie Review

Scottish filmmaker Gillies MacKinnon (Hideous Kinky) remakes the 1949 Ealing comedy classic, although it's difficult...

Alien: Covenant Movie Review

Alien: Covenant Movie Review

Master filmmaker Ridley Scott is back to continue the story 10 years after the events...

The Journey (2017) Movie Review

The Journey (2017) Movie Review

A fictionalised account of real events, this drama is reminiscent of Peter Morgan's work in...

Advertisement
Sleepless Movie Review

Sleepless Movie Review

In remaking the 2011 French thriller Sleepless Night, the filmmakers have dumbed down both the...

Unlocked Movie Review

Unlocked Movie Review

By injecting a steady sense of fun, this slick but mindless action thriller both holds...

Lady Macbeth Movie Review

Lady Macbeth Movie Review

A seriously impressive feature directing debut with a star-making central performance, this period British drama...

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Movie Review

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Movie Review

It was never going to be easy to match the impact of 2014's Guardians of...

The Promise Movie Review

The Promise Movie Review

The director of Hotel Rwanda, Terry George, turns to another humanitarian horror: the systematic murder...

Their Finest Movie Review

Their Finest Movie Review

Skilfully written, directed and acted, this offbeat British period film tells a story that catches...

Unforgettable Movie Review

Unforgettable Movie Review

With heavy echoes of trashy thrillers like Fatal Attraction, this movie overcomes its painfully simplistic...

Advertisement
Artists
Actors
    Filmmakers
      Artists
      Bands
        Musicians
          Artists
          Celebrities
             
              Artists
              Interviews
                musicians & bands in the news
                  actors & filmmakers in the news
                    celebrities in the news

                      Go Back in Time using our News archive to see what happened on a particular day in the past.