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The Big Red One (1980, USA)

23/04/2011

Director: Samuel Fuller    Starring: Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine, Siegfried Rauch

“This is fictional life based on factual death.” A stark mission statement from the outset for the 2004 “reconstructed” version of Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One. Critic and filmmaker Richard Schickel’s painstaking project has reinstated (using the original shooting script as a guide) over forty minutes to the running time of this Second World War epic that follows the U.S. First Infantry Division from its first deployment in Algeria through to the end of the war.

Drawing on his own experiences (Fuller was a decorated member of the genuine Big Red One throughout the war) it follows a nameless Sergeant (Marvin) and his infantry squad as they try to survive the war by any means necessary. As their exploits unfold, four young Privates rapidly grow into battle hardened soldiers in the orbit of the Sarge and we follow these five men from their first step on the Algerian sand to their liberation of a Czechoslovakian concentration camp as the war was drawing to a close. Inbetween, they have to contend with the invasion of Sicily and the D-Day landings and all the carnage and chaos that went with them.

I have never seen the original version of the film but my immediate impression is that it must have been a pretty poor hatchet job compared to this. I can’t see forty minutes that you could remove without having a very negative impact on the film. Richard Schickel, I salute you for the job done overseeing this reconstruction job. Apart from one shot in a single scene where there is obvious, serious degradation to the film I couldn’t tell which scenes had been reconstructed from the vault materials and which were part of the original version of the film. This speaks volumes about the love and care that has clearly been invested in this project and it is an important project.

Unlike other Second World War epics (such as The Longest Day for example), The Big Red One has narrowed its scope down to a small group of individuals, not even a whole squad and tells their story rather than attempting to put everything into a grander context. Rather than being myopic, this allows the film to revel in the details of the experiences of these men rather than losing the individuals in the masses of the conflict. The Sergeant and his “Four Horsemen” as they become known to the rest of their squad seem to endure every ordeal out of sheer determination to survive. The closeness to Griff (Mark Hamill), Zab (Robert Carradine), Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco) and Johnson (Kelly Ward) means you become as invested in their survival as they are makes for a tense experience.

The performances from the main cast are superb. Marvin’s stoic Sergeant, a grizzled veteran of the First World War (when the Big Red One was formed) is obviously rooted in his own experiences as a Marine in the Pacific theatre. Calm and confident, even when pinned down in the hell of Omaha Beach his outward appearance belies the troubled man within. Hamill does an amazing job as the morally conflicted Griff, a man whose reluctance to take the life of another human being soon gives way under the basic need to survive. Carradine, Kelly and Di Cicco also do a great job of conveying the conflict between their friendly cameraderie and the brutality of being professional killers.

Brutality and savagery are very much at the heart of this film. There is no hiding the fact the Fuller lived this for real. There is no flag waving, twee sentimentality or misguided patriotism here. Stripped of the politics and global view the morality of the war (and warfare in general) is illustrated through snapshots from the unit’s viewpoint. Yes, the Nazi’s are portrayed as an evil enemy, but only insofar as their actual actions illustrate the point. The soldiers console themselves with semantic arguments to deal with their actions (“we don’t murder people, we kill them”). At times the film borders on the abstract, a stealthy liberation of an occupied Belgian monastery/lunatic asylum being a fine example, questioning the sanity not just of the soldiers but of the human race in general.

It’s a film steeped in authenticity and while it was clearly deeply personal to Fuller it is as accessible as any classic war film you are ever likely to see. Full of humanity and warmth, sometimes appearing in the most unlikely of corners in war torn Europe, I’d venture so far as to say it is one of the most impressive films about the Second World War I have ever seen, made all the more impressive by the knowledge that a lot of what transpires on screen actually happened. Perhaps the most impressive thing about it is the fact that Fuller clearly held out a glimmer of hope for the human race in spite of his tenure with the Big Red One, a hope that shines through in the film, despite the obvious and overwhelming horrors he must have faced. Truly excellent.

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