Review: The Big Red One

Despite its black sense of humor, Samuel Fuller’s frank vision of combat leaves no room for schmaltz.

The Big Red One
Photo: Warner Bros.

Samuel Fuller’s rough and uncompromising genre films (Underworld U.S.A., Pickup on South Street, Shock Corridor) were always brimming with blunt poetry, typical of an “authentic American primitive” (as the director was famously dubbed by critic Andrew Sarris). Though never one to drape his rugged films in traditional cinematographic beauty, Fuller’s fast-and-furious direction had a hard-wired velocity and stringent ferocity that—when coupled with his disdain for melodramatic mawkishness—made him a hero of the independent film community (the French New Wave, as well as Americans such as Jim Jarmusch, revered him like a deity) and a paragon of extreme, from-the-gut filmmaking. They may not have been the prettiest or nicest pictures ever created, but you could feel the grit and grandeur of a Samuel Fuller film deep in the pit of your stomach.

Such is most assuredly the case with 1980’s The Big Red One, Fuller’s final masterpiece about a WWII rifle company in the First Infantry (a.k.a. “The Big Red One”) that, courtesy of Time critic Richard Schickel and Warner Bros. executive Brian Jamieson, has now been restored with 40 minutes of long-lost footage as The Big Red One: The Reconstruction. An episodic account of five gunmen—the commanding Sarge (Lee Marvin), brash Zab (Robert Carradine), weak-kneed Griff (Mark Hamill), wisecracking Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco), and hemorrhoid-plagued Johnson (Kelly Ward)—and their travails through North Africa, Sicily, Germany, and Czechoslovakia, Fuller’s film (based on his own experiences in the military) is an epic depiction of a soldier’s life told within a contextual vacuum.

Uninterested in the larger politics and military strategy of the continent-crossing conflict, Fuller instead concentrates on his characters and their specific, moment-to-moment experiences during skirmishes and downtime in order to capture the agony, joy, madness, and terror of battle. A stirring Omaha beach sequence (shot with stark coarseness by Adam Greenberg) intersperses the soldiers’ attempts to reach safety with shots of a dead man’s watch lying in the blood-red surf, vividly demonstrating the grueling, seemingly endless nature of the siege. Intense close-ups of the infantrymen’s eyes peeking ever-so-slightly out of a foxhole (an image first used by Fuller in 1951’s The Steel Helmet) capture the disbelief, dread, and hopelessness that regularly gripped the men’s hearts. More than any other WWII film, The Big Red One conveys the experience of being on the ground, on the run, and scared to death.

To facilitate viewers projecting themselves into this unnerving, chaotic war, Fuller deliberately fashions his protagonists as two-dimensional archetypes. True, Carradine’s sarcastic, detached Zab—an aspiring, cigar-chomping pulp writer (“The Hemingway of the Bronx”) who provides the film’s hard-bitten, fatalistic narration—is clearly a stand-in for Fuller, and Marvin wonderfully underplays his scenes, bringing a composed (yet never sentimental) tenderness to his role as the paternal Sarge. But the soldiers’ back-stories are intentionally left vague or nonexistent, and the foul-mouthed banter among the soldiers, though amusingly pessimistic, never elucidates much about the inner lives of the characters (save for Hamill’s frazzled Griff, who embodies the role of The Coward). We’re able to put ourselves in these men’s boots because we’re made to feel fundamentally no different from them, just as they are—while in the heat of battle, dodging bullets and desperately praying to God—no different from their adversaries.

Sarge, watching an African cut off dead men’s ears, remarks, “After a fight, you can’t tell the difference between an American and a Kraut ear.” When Johnson finds a memorial to fallen US soldiers in Germany, he believes it’s been hastily created for their current crusade. Once Sarge informs him that it’s actually a tribute to WWI’s dead, his stunned response (“But the names are the same”) is met with Sarge’s despondent reply, “They always are.” Fuller knows well that corpses are corpses, and though the dog tags change, the only thing that truly differentiates soldiers (young or old, German, French, or American) is the strength of their pulse.

Much of this “Reconstruction” version’s newly incorporated material—a combination of scene extensions and wholly original vignettes—helps augment the film’s ambitious scope (including more about Siegfried Rauch’s vicious Nazi true believer Schroeder). Yet the most pleasant surprise is how these restored bits and pieces enhance the film’s incisive portrait of the soldiers as not just scared, angry, dejected, and courageous, but also as sexually frustrated. While the original’s sexual subtext was largely confined to the GI’s protecting their gun barrels from salt water with condoms and a fantasy about frozen female derrieres, the film is now exploding (almost to a gratuitous extent) with sly allusions to the men’s burning desire for a sexual outlet.

“That’s not my gun,” an erect Zab tells the sleeping Johnson after poking him in the back, mere moments after Axis Sally urges the Americans to quit the fight with her comically sultry, breathy American voice. Fuller—who once said about moviemaking, “If the first scene doesn’t give you a hard-on, then throw the goddamn thing away”—knows that, like their bravery and bravado, the soldiers’ pent-up urges are a natural extension of their masculinity-under-duress, and this undercurrent helps alleviate the film’s occasional battle fatigue. “I can understand you being horny, Fritz,” Sarge tells a gay German doctor in a Tunis war hospital after the man has kissed him, “but you’ve got bad breath.”

This farcicality is intrinsic to The Big Red One’s constitution, since the film’s overriding mission is to expose both the inherent absurdity and tragedy of war—a mission it accomplishes with a sober wit and sensitivity that’s unmatched in Fuller’s canon. As we watch the scene unfold with amused incredulity, Zab explains that to smoke out a sniper, “You send a guy out into the open to see if they get shot…they taught us that one up at West Point.” The sight of enormous German tanks rolling over the tiny holes in which soldiers hide—their heads barely below ground level, and thus nearly touching the vehicles’ treads—epitomizes the terrifying surrealism of the smoky, disorienting battlefield. Faced with a pregnant lady about to burst, Sarge, Griff, and Johnson deliver a baby inside a tank by using condoms on their fingers (for sanitary purposes), bullet belts to keep her legs spread, and exhortations to the woman to “pousser” (“push” in French) which, when incorrectly pronounced by Johnson, sounds a lot like the female anatomy he’s pulling a newborn through. And in the film’s most darkly comic scene, Sarge consoles a soldier who’s just been seriously injured in the groin by barking, “It’s just one of your balls, Smitty. You can live without it. That’s why they gave you two!” Then, as if to prove the relative unimportance of the man’s loss, he flippantly tosses the severed appendage over his shoulder.

Despite its black sense of humor, Fuller’s frank vision of combat leaves no room for schmaltz—to the director, war means death, and death is cold and unromantic—and thus as the rifle unit’s reserve members begin dropping like dominoes, the film barely spends a moment to mourn their loss. Still, The Big Red One does exhibit sympathy and sorrow for the innocent children caught in the middle of this bullet-strewn bedlam, using Marvin’s Sarge—a man whose soft center is barely concealed by his grizzly exterior—as the conduit for its compassion. Sarge agrees to help a young Italian boy bury his mother in exchange for directions to a troublesome German artillery gun; upon arriving at this destination, he has the men hold their fire until the blissfully ignorant children have passed out of the line of fire. Similarly, in a newly expanded scene, a petite girl decorates Sarge’s helmet with flowers, yet when her request for a goodbye kiss puts her life in danger, the director, unable to stomach what he’s just dramatized, employs an abrupt edit to partially obscure whether or not the child has been mortally wounded. When Sarge is unable to heal a young Czechoslovakian concentration camp victim with food and water—instead gently carrying him on his shoulders along a riverbank until the boy passes away—the look on the commander’s worn, stoic countenance is one of unmitigated despair.

In the film’s black-and-white opening scene, Sarge—lost on a WWI German battlefield in 1918, completely unaware that the war has been officially over for hours—is attacked by a stampeding horse (a symbol of combat’s unpredictable violence) and then murders a German soldier while an ominous woodcarving of Christ on the cross, sans eyes, towers overhead. Though he later tells his WWII First Infantry that in war, “We don’t murder—we kill,” Sarge is haunted by his crime, and in a final, tragic irony, he duplicates his mistake at film’s conclusion by knifing Schroeder after Germany’s surrender. While Fuller lets Sarge off the hook by having Schroeder ultimately survive the attack—thus providing the most “optimistic” ending of the director’s career—The Big Red One’s vision of war as random, cruel, bizarre, and unforgiving is nonetheless ever-present and inescapable. As the wooden Jesus’s hollow, passive gaze upon the corpse-strewn battleground exemplifies, there is no heaven, no hell, no salvation in war—only soldiers, their comrades, and the essential, undeniable will to survive.

 Cast: Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine, Bobby Di Cicco, Kelly Ward, Siegfried Rauch, Stéphane Audran, Serge Marquand, Alain Doutey  Director: Samuel Fuller  Screenwriter: Samuel Fuller  Distributor: Warner Bros.  Running Time: 162 min  Rating: R  Year: 1980  Buy: Video

Nick Schager

Nick Schager is the entertainment critic for The Daily Beast. His work has also appeared in Variety, Esquire, The Village Voice, and other publications.

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