The Big Red One (Samuel Fuller, 1980): USA

Reviewed by Byron Potau. Viewed on DVD.

The Big Red One

Certainly a prize among cineastes, but not as well known to mass audiences as other war films, writer/director Samuel Fuller’s semi autobiographical WWII film on his experiences in the 1st Infantry Division, nicknamed The Big Red One, deserves its place among the classics of war film cinema.

The film focuses on four soldiers, Pvt. Johnson (Kelly Ward), Pvt. Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco), Pvt. Griff (Mark Hamill), Pvt. Zab (Robert Carradine), and their Sergeant (Lee Marvin), a veteran of WWI. Replacements come and go, but these five remain constant, surviving through various missions in North Africa, Sicily, and Omaha Beach. The most interesting of the soldiers are Griff, a sharp shooter who can’t bring himself to kill, and Zab, the narrator of the film, an aspiring author, and possibly closer to an incarnation of Fuller than any of the other characters. These five almost seemed charmed as they continue to survive while others around them get killed. Mixed in between the missions are several memorable moments including delivering a French woman’s baby while mispronouncing the French word for push.

There is a realism in Fuller’s desaturated and deglamorized film that shines through. He displays the rough edges of war and the dirty, sweaty faces of his soldiers, and his first hand knowledge of war is evident. The film has many memorable moments including the film’s opening and ending, and the Sergeant’s encounter with a Jewish boy he liberated from the concentration camps, but Fuller does not dwell on them unnecessarily or try to heighten the moment, choosing to keep the film more realistic rather than letting it become sentimental.

The cast shines, with Lee Marvin in top form as the Sergeant giving one of the best performances of his career, and Robert Carradine and Mark Hamill prove they have more to offer than just Revenge of the Nerds and Star Wars.

The film has an episodic structure that bothers some, but did not hamper my experience at all. This structure is likely due to the extreme cutting of the film by the studio against Fuller’s wishes, however, in 2004 the film was restored closer to Fuller’s original vision, adding about forty minutes back into the film and many prefer this version, which I have yet to see, to the theatrical release.

I am inclined to think the restored version will be better, but whichever version you choose to watch is arguably the crowning achievement of Fuller’s varied and brilliant career.

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