Bobby Di Cicco
2 Hrs., 40 Mins.
The Big Red One
February 25, 2020
urviving war is the only glory of war.” Such is the last thing said in The Big Red One (1980), writer-director Samuel Fuller’s epic war movie. It’s a memorable sentiment, sure; but more so it’s a neat testament to the film’s overall tenor. Semi-autobiographical for Fuller, who was a military man before turning to film, the World War II-set movie follows the exploits of an unnamed
sergeant (an exquisitely deadpan Lee Marvin) and his infantry (Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine, Bobby Di Cicco, and Kelly Ward) over the course of two years, during which they run through North Africa, Sicily, France, and other locales. The film concludes in the mid-1940s, when the sergeant and his division (whose nickname the feature is named after) participate in the liberation efforts of the Falkenau concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.
The Big Red One was fairly comprehensively chopped to bits when it was originally released. It was scissored down, to the chagrin of Fuller, whose original version lasted somewhere upward of four hours, to 113 minutes by his studio. It languished in its condensed form for decades. Then the movie critic Richard Schickel led a restoration effort assisted by the filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich after Fuller died in 1997. In 2004, a version much more in line with what the director had in mind upon conception debuted at the Cannes Film Festival, running 47 minutes longer. (This is the edition I’m reviewing.)
The 160-minute cut is a curious war movie. It’s episodic and patchy — a clips show, almost, of the most indelible things this infantry experienced together — and is shot with a B-movie edge. It's claustrophobic and limited than what we characteristically see from war movies of similar scope, which frequently preference a sense of grandeur. The Big Red One feels almost like pulp. It finds its thrills not so much in battle but more so in the personalities of this group of young men lending themselves to the fight. It’s even reminiscent, in the way it’s edited and photographed, of one of those scrappy, cheaply made, and implicitly-to-explicitly propagandistic war movies churned out at the apex of the Hollywood Golden Age. If its narrative were sanded down as to make war look vaguely appealing, we could picture it starring Audie Murphy or John Wayne. (Wayne was actually initially cast in the Marvin role, but Fuller wisely deemed him unfit.)
The subversion of The Big Red One is that visually and in its aesthetic sensibilities it’s a bit chintzy but, in its writing and messaging, is naturalistic and cynical — an epitomization of the “war, what is it good for?” adage. The movie can be funny, thanks to its unexpectedly good-humored characters. But the comedy seems to suggest that anything minutely jokey is a survival mechanism. Fuller makes explicit, even before the aforementioned final words of the film are said, how ultimately hollow a thing war is almost right off the bat. The prologue of the movie sees the sergeant, as a young WWI soldier, kill an ostensibly surrendering German peer, unaware that the war itself was declared finished about four hours earlier. During later sequences set in a mental hospital (where a batty, Stéphane Audran-assisted melee takes place) and particularly the one inside the concentration camp, it’s made clear that even surviving isn’t exactly as “glorious” as the closing line of the feature says. Because isn’t it a waste that people are being made to go through it in the first place? Isn’t it unthinkable that the eponymous division of men find themselves at one point responsible for helping a European stranger give birth, for instance?
Over and over again in The Big Red One the sergeant tells his men that they’re killing, but not murdering, people. This attempt to soothe them is a contrived cover-up to make the fundamental immorality of war more stomachable. As far as war-focused cinematic indictments go, the majority make an effort to be as aesthetically cold and brutal as possible to really drive home its anti-war (or at least war-skeptical) messages. What’s so invigorating and innovative about The Big Red One is that it has the look and feel of a far more romantic movie but, finally, is perhaps even more pessimistic than its more conventionally pessimistically-presenting counterparts. A-