The Big Red One was originally released in 1980, yet it remains in many ways a precariously positioned film, existing just outside its own time. Based on director Samuel Fuller’s experiences serving during World War II, and thus likely one of his most personal works, the film takes an appropriately intimate, episodic approach to its depiction of the ideological travails and excruciating wartime experiences of the 1st Infantry Division, the associative value of which lends both the troupe and the film their corresponding titles. Charting moral maturation and psychological devolution in simultaneous narrative strokes, the film follows the eponymous company across greater Europe, from North Africa to Normandy, Belgium, and Czechoslovakia—and thus through some of the most notable battles and historical atrocities of the mid ’40s.
The film’s style, a mix of practical action production and serialized storytelling, is in a sense old-fashioned; opening on a barren, war-torn landscape at the end of the First World War (we’re informed via on-screen text that the year is 1918), the film’s short prologue, which Fuller shoots in black and white, is the first hint that he’s potentially looking to reflect each period in accordance with its cinematic analogue. This sequence, wherein Sgt. Possum (Lee Marvin) kills a German soldier only to later learn that an armistice has been issued, also sets up an important dialectical thesis, the ethical implications of which Fuller rhymes in a similar scene at film’s end, establishing a kind of spiritual arc for his lead character and a self-reflexive expository device for the director himself, who also wrote the screenplay.
Along with the employment of black-and-white film stock, Fuller here utilizes an array of seemingly antiquated techniques (zooms, day-for-night photography, continuity editing, and shot/reverse-shot chronology), each perhaps a natural byproduct of decades of studio work, but in the case of a film set just before its director’s most prolific period, also an aesthetic conceptualization which creates an interesting sense of dislocation alongside the otherwise appropriate feeling of authenticity. Thus, as the core coalition of soldiers advance from desert to beach to village to, finally, a starkly populated concentration camp, its Fuller’s privileged perspective on these events which, manifest in such matter-of-fact style, solidify the film’s primary subject as less any specific war and more our innate will to survive and the redemption that often coincides with such resilience. These dynamic aspects may arise via ruptures in characterization and emotion rather than through any formal properties of the filmmaking itself, as they do in much of Fuller’s more expressive work, but there’s a thematic integrity generated through such aesthetic economy which naturally aligns it with such early war efforts as The Steel Helmet and China Gate.
When it was “reconstructed” and rereleased in 2004, seven years after Fuller’s death, The Big Red One took perhaps its first definitive step toward contemporary assimilation; what was once considered at best a solid late-period accomplishment had now been reclaimed as one of its director’s most substantial works. Adding back over 50 minutes of footage cut by the studio, this updated version of the film facilitated further idiosyncratic breadth for many of its key characters, including Private Griff (Mark Hammill), who struggles most of all with the contradictions of militant killing, and Private Zab (Robert Carradine), an aspiring poet who also solemnly narrates the proceedings. This expansion allows for both additional instances of comedy and camaraderie (an extended scene where the troops trade fetish fantasies, for example) as well as moments of heretofore unexplored vulnerability (such as an intimate encounter with a woman or a potentially deadly confrontation with a child soldier), which together do their part to elevate the film’s humanist undertow. And while there’s a certain nobility to the comparatively modest latitude of the original, a film of such internalized interrogation, when measured against the scope of Fuller’s greater vision, finds a far more effective outlet for not only its traumatic concerns, but its topical ones as well. Nevertheless, there’s a timeless quality inherent to the most efficient of Fuller’s gestures, and a resilience reflected in the lives it so sympathetically eulogizes, that has allowed The Big Red One, in its many incarnations, to persevere all these years.
It’s always welcome when studio titles with perfectly satisfying standard-definition DVDs find their way to high definition, but the new Warner Home Video Blu-ray of The Big Red One is marred by an odd, egregious half-measure: Rather than include both the theatrical and reconstructed versions of the film in 1080p, only the former is transferred to high definition, offering (of all things) the longer version of the film in standard definition. So essentially you receive the standard-definition transfer of the reconstructed version from the original DVD along with a high-def transfer of the theatrical version, all on a single Blu-ray disc—which is doubly unfortunate in light of the quality of the 1080p rendering of the theatrical version, which is bright and bold, featuring far fewer artifacts and much more visible detail. Blacks are thicker and shadows are more balanced, while colors are far more vivid. The standard-definition reconstruction remains watchable but hazy, with desaturated colors and unstable contrast becoming even more noticeable in comparison. It begs to reason that the restored scenes, many of which show much more wear than their counterparts, would have benefited most from a high-def rendering.
Audio, meanwhile, corresponds with the respective visual presentations: The theatrical cut receives a two-channel DTS-HD mastering, while the reconstruction retains its Dolby rendering, albeit in surround. For the most part the high-def track is effective, with booming battle sequences and instances of separations. Dialogue is slightly muddy and inconsistent, though that’s more a symptom of the original production than any slight against the audio track. Needless to say, what could have been a worthwhile cause for upgrade is instead an unfortunate example of financial hedge-betting.
Save for a gallery of still production photographs, the extras are duplicated here from the original DVD release. The 45-minute documentary "The Real Glory: Reconstructing The Big Red One," featuring interviews with Samuel Fuller, members of the cast, and critic Richard Shickel, remains a useful supplement to the film, helping to contextualize its two versions—as does the commentary track, also by Schickel, who goes into further detail regarding the restoration process from scene to scene. Likewise, the TCM documentary "The Men Who Made the Movies: Samuel Fuller," the two "Anatomy of a Scene" comparisons, and the 30-minute reel of alternate scenes are functional for further insight into Fuller’s directorial process. A promo reel, radio spots, a restoration trailer, and a short propaganda film from 1946 round out the special features.
One of director Samuel Fuller’s most personal works, reconstructed and reclaimed as a classic 10 years ago, is done a disservice with a welcome but oddly incomplete Blu-ray/DVD combo package.