Eventually the veterans in the rifle squad stop bothering to
learn the names of the new kids who arrive to bring them up to strength. They
get killed so quickly, it's not worth the trouble. But the sergeant and four of
his men make it all the way through the war, or almost, anyway -- from North
Africa to Sicily to Omaha Beach on D-Day to Belgium and finally to Germany and
the liberation of a death camp.
it unlikely these five would be survivors? Not to Sam Fuller, who wrote and
directed "The Big Red One" (1980), based on his own combat memories.
"I wanted to do the story of a survivor," he told me when the movie
premiered at Cannes, "because all war stories are told by survivors."
was a cigar-chomping, tough-talking, wiry little guy who started out as a
teenage New York crime reporter, lying about his age to get the job. He wrote
pulp novels, he talked tough, he fought all the way through the war, and he
carried around memories of the First Infantry Division, the "Big Red
One." He made a lot of other movies first, hard-boiled war movies like
"Steel Helmet" and "Fixed Bayonets" (both 1951), noir
classics like "Pickup on South Street' (1953) and cult B pictures like
"Shock Corridor" (1963) and "The Naked Kiss" (1964).
he got his chance at his dream project. He had a limited budget, $4 million,
but he shot and shot and shot, because like all newspapermen he couldn't bear
to waste a good story. Yes, the movie is episodic. War is episodic. He said he
couldn't stand war pictures that had a story arc where everything led up to a
big scene. In the real war, you lived in the present. There was no connection
between what happened to you last week and what was happening today, because
you had no direction over your life and neither did anyone else.
original cut of the film came to 270 minutes. It was cut to 113 minutes, which
broke his heart, but what was left worked well enough that he was proud of it.
He talked about restoring his original version, but he died in 1997 without
getting that done. Now the film critic Richard Schickel has overseen a
reconstruction that brings the film up to 158 minutes, and it reveals a
richness and pacing missing in the earlier version; one suspects that the
270-minute version was a rough cut even Fuller would have trimmed. The restored
"Big Red One" is able to suggest the scope and duration of the war,
the way it's one damned thing after another, the distances traveled, the
pile-up of experiences that are numbing most of the time but occasionally
produce an episode as perfect as a short story.
centers everything on the sergeant, played by Lee Marvin with the rock-solid
authority of a man who had seen action as a Marine in the Pacific, and called
his other big war movie, "The Dirty Dozen," a "dummy
moneymaker." Fuller always wanted Marvin for the role. A studio insisted
on John Wayne, but Fuller said he'd rather not make the picture. He was
correct. This is Marvin's picture, and he dominates it not with heroics and
speechmaking but with competence, patience, realism, and a certain tender
sadness. There's a scene where a soldier is shot in the groin, and the sergeant
finds something in the mud and tosses it away: "That was just one of your
balls, Smitty. That's why they give you two."
long-lasting squad members are Zab (Robert Carradine), a cigar-chewing pulp
writer who is obviously playing Fuller; Griff (Mark Hamill), who doesn't like
killing but has a change of heart; Vinci (Bobby DiCicco) and Johnson (Kelly
Ward). There's a scene where one of the anonymous new replacements is reading a
paperback titledThe Dark
Deadline,and Zab tries to
tell him he wrote the book. The kid doesn't grasp the concept. He's dead before
he finishes the book.
film starts with the horror of World War I, as a shell-shocked Army horse runs
maddened across a battlefield. That's where we meet Marvin's character for the
first time. He apparently becomes a lifer in the Army, is promoted to sergeant,
leads these kids through the next war. We learn nothing about him -- not if
he's married, not if he has a family, not even his name. In another sense, we
learn everything about him. Fuller and Marvin never give the sergeant those
obligatory campfire speeches describing his history and beliefs, and instead
develop the character by showing how he behaves at important moments. He captures
a German sniper, for example, and finds out the gunman is only a kid from
Hitler's desperate last-ditch "children's army." The sergeant would
have routinely shot another sniper. This one, he spanks.
are details Fuller must have remembered from the time, such as the landing in
Africa at a position defended by soldiers from the Nazi-sympathizing Vichy
government of France. "If you're Vichy, fight us," the Americans
shout over loud-speakers. "If you're Frenchmen, join us." The scene
draws a class distinction between officers and men in the French lines. There
is no distinction between the American sergeant and his men.
episodes sound like something Fuller would tell you over a beer. Like the time
the squad hides in a cave and one German after another appears in the opening
-- some to pee, others to have a look. The Americans pick them off one by one.
They're in desperate danger themselves, but the cave becomes their shooting
gallery. And there's a scene where they deliver a baby in a German tank they've
just captured; in his heartfelt review of the film, Charles Taylor of Salon.com
notices "one genuinely surreal detail: hanging belts of ammunition used as
stirrups, the bullets pointed at the pregnant woman's belly."
is a moment during the landing at Omaha Beach that no one forgets after seeing
the film. A soldier's arm has been torn off, and sticks in the sand, a
wrist-watch still in place. From time to time, Fuller cuts back to the watch;
we can see how much time has passed. Steven Spielberg, who undoubtedly screened
"The Big Red One" while preparing "Saving Private Ryan," is
not a director who often needs to feel envy, but he must have coveted that
we understand, finally, is that the entire war comes down to these five men, because
it istheirentire war. Nobody wades ashore with
10,000 men. They wade ashore all by themselves. By limiting the scope of the
action, Fuller was able to make the movie look completely convincing on his
limited budget, using Ireland for the scenes set in Belgium and Israel for all
the other scenes. We see tanks and planes and Germans and landing craft when we
need to, but the focus is on the faces of the squad members.
with Fuller, I quoted Truffaut's dictum that all war movies are pro-war, because
no matter what their "message" is, they make the action look
snorted. "Pro or anti, what the hell difference does it make to the guy
who gets his ass shot off? The movie is very simple. It's a series of combat
experiences, and the times of waiting in between. Lee Marvin plays a carpenter
of death. The sergeants of this world have been dealing death to young men for
10,000 years. He's a symbol of all those years and all those sergeants, no
matter what their names were or what they called their rank in other languages.
That's why he has no name in the movie.
movie deals with death in a way that might be unfamiliar to people who know
nothing of war except what they learned in war movies. I believe that fear
doesn't delay death, and so it is fruitless. A guy is hit. So, he's hit. That's
that. I don't cry because that guy over there got hit. I cry because I'm gonna
get hit next. All that phony heroism is a bunch of baloney when they're
shooting at you. But you have to be honest with a corpse, and that is the
emotion that the movie shows rubbing off on four young men."
it does. And that's why Griff, the squad member who doesn't like killing, pumps
20 rounds into a Nazi in one of the final scenes. He is a killer, shooting at a