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Review: Sam Fuller's "The Big Red One" says "War is hell"

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The Big Red One

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Sam Fuller's 1980 "The Big Red One"(which was named after the divisional patch of the U.S. Army’s First Infantry Division) is, in many ways, an unconventional war movie. Unlike most war movies which take their characters along a defined story arc, "The Big Red One" is episodic in its structure. The film covers all the major campaigns in which the First Infantry Division saw combat – North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and Northwest Europe – in vignettes which encompass the experiences of The Sergeant (Marvin) and his small squad of GIs. (Bobby Di Cicco, Robert Carradine, Kelly Ward, and Mark Hamill)

In its original 1980 version, "The Big Red One" is a small-scale depiction of war set on a large canvas. Unlike its more lavishly-budgeted and better-known celluloid cousins "Saving Private Ryan" and "The Longest Day," Fuller’s semi-autobiographical movie does not show the war in typical “epic” fashion. It foreshadows Steven Spielberg’s 1998 D-Day classic by focusing on a very small group of GIs (and a few German characters) and also depicts part of the Omaha Beach landings on June 6, 1944).

However, "The Big Red One" “ expands its story beyond D-Day by starting it with a flashback to November 11, 1918 and showing Lee Marvin’s nameless character (made up to look somewhat younger) as he kills a German soldier who was trying to surrender. Looming in the background of this tragic scene – the Private is told that the war had ended four hours earlier – is a huge termite-infested wooden cross.

After this haunting beginning and the appearance in color of the First Division’s patch on the screen, The Big Red One hurls the viewer into a 113-minute “memory tour” of the Sergeant and his Four Horsemen’s (Carradine, Di Cicco, Hamill, and Ward) World War II tour of duty.

My Take: Though Sam Fuller had wanted to film "The Big Red One" as early as the late 1950s, his fight with Warner Bros. over studio-mandated changes to his 1962 film "Merrill’s Marauders" forced Fuller to wait almost 20 years until Lorimar Pictures agreed to produce this gritty and apolitical war movie.

Unfortunately for Fuller, Lorimar took a look at the filmmaker’s original 270-minute version and cut its running time to 113 minutes, seven minutes shy of two full hours.

Why? Part of the studio’s reasoning may have been that audiences may not have the stamina to sit through a four-and-a-half hour movie, especially if it shows such things as Moroccan soldiers cutting the ears of dead Germans. Also, theater owners prefer movies with short running times; longer movies usually get fewer screenings per day and are less profitable.

The Sergeant: Killing insane people is not good for public relations.

Griff: Killing sane people is okay?

The Sergeant: That's right.

In 2004, Warner Bros. released a longer edition of "The Big Red One." Reconstructed by Richard Schickel and Brian Jamieson, the new version restores nearly an hour’s worth of footage. Among the restored and extended scenes is the sequence which shows the Moroccans cutting off ears from dead German soldiers.

Shot in Israel, Ireland and the U.S., "The Big Red One" is an example of how a skilled (if perhaps not very well-known) filmmaker can make a powerful, moving film of men at war with a small budget. For $4 million (in 1979 dollars), Fuller somehow captures the wide experience of combat and how it affects the young men who fight in wars.

My Take:

As a former newspaper reporter and decorated World War II combat veteran, Fuller willfully avoids giving viewers what they expect to see – a carefully-crafted three-act story with a well-defined character arc. Instead, he tells the story of The Sergeant, Private Griff (Hamill), Private Zab (Carradine) who is both the film’s narrator and Fuller’s alter ego, Private Vinci (Di Sicco), and Private Johnson (Ward) from the shores of North Africa to the hellish Nazi concentration camp at Falkenau in Czechoslovakia.

Though given a meager budget by the studio, Fuller nevertheless manages to tell his visceral story with simple but effective techniques.

For instance, the sequence in which the D-Day landing is portrayed focuses only on a few intimate glimpses at the horrors of Omaha Beach. First, the passage of time – roughly two hours – is shown as the camera focuses on a dead GI’s watch as the surf washes over it. The hands on the watch’s face gradually move from H-Hour (6:30 AM) to 8:00 AM, and the water gets redder and redder as more GIs are wounded or killed offscreen.

Another D-Day vignette, intercut with the dead GI’s watch, focuses on a frightened Pvt. Griff as he tries to struggle his way from the water’s edge to the sea wall that leads to the bluffs above the beach. His blue eyes wide in terror, Griff, played well by Mark Hamill, has to be ruthlessly coaxed by The Sergeant to move off the beach before the Germans pick him off.

As “small” and intimate a film as "The Big Red One" is, it somehow captures the tragedy, the pathos, and even the dark comedy of war. Not as monumental or stirring as "The Longest Day" or as graphic as "Saving Private Ryan," Fuller’s movie is modest in scope but delivers the truth about combat and soldiers as closely as possible for a film originally rated PG.

Like 1949’s "Battleground," it earns its stripes because it comes straight from the memories of a World War II veteran and not simply the inventions of a Hollywood scribe or director who has never even served in the military.

Blu-ray Specifications:

• Format: Multiple Formats, Blu-ray, Dolby, DTS Surround Sound, NTSC, Widescreen

• Language: English
• Region: Region A/1
• Aspect Ratio: 1.77:1
• Number of discs: 1
• Rated: PG (Parental Guidance Suggested)
• Studio: Warner Home Video
• DVD Release Date: May 6, 2014
• Run Time: 114 minutes

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