Combustible Celluloid
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With: Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine, Bobby Di Cicco, Stephane Audran, Christa Lang, Kelly Ward, Siegfried Rauch, Samuel Fuller
Written by: Samuel Fuller
Directed by: Samuel Fuller
MPAA Rating: R for war violence and some language (previously rated PG)
Running Time: 113
Date: 05/28/1980

The Big Red One (1980)

4 Stars (out of 4)

When Your Number Is Up

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In 1980, after thirty years directing movies, Samuel Fuller got to make what he hoped would be his masterpiece, based on his experiences in World War II with his unit, the "big red 1." Fuller's version was a nearly four-hour epic. Surely it would have been the culmination of all his work, and been his masterpiece -- the film he would be remembered by. It's not his masterpiece, but only because the studio chopped it down to 2 hours, added narration, and a new score that Fuller did not approve of. As it stands now, The Big Red One is one of many masterpieces, among his many cheaper B-movies that are just as good, The Steel Helmet, Pickup on South Street, Shock Corridor, and The Naked Kiss.

It would have been just lovely to see Fuller nominated for Oscars for this movie, but the sad truth is that it was a bad time for World War II movies at the box office. The Vietnam movies Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter and Coming Home had all recently been released, and WWII seemed warm and cuddly by comparison. But The Big Red One is as good a war movie as those, and better in some aspects. It's certainly better than Platoon or Full Metal Jacket, from the second wave of Vietnam movies in the 80's. The Big Red One received some respectable reviews and some box office, and disappeared, just like most of Fuller's other films.

Lee Marvin stars as a nameless sergeant, who had survived WWI. The movie opens with a prologue in which Marvin kills an enemy soldier before finding out that the war has been over for hours. Technically, he's a murderer now. Marvin carries this knowledge on his great granite face throughout the whole movie. The Big Red One is Marvin's platoon, which contains four soldiers who seem to survive every kind of horror, no matter how bizarre, and an endless series of young recruits who die before anyone can learn their names. Mark Hamill (in the same year as The Empire Strikes Back) is Griff, a cartoonist and a coward who almost runs many times, but doesn't.

The Big Red One is made up of many little stories, unconnected except by the characters and the setting. The team survives a German ambush, free a group of elderly Italian women from slavery by the Germans, storm an insane asylum (a throwback to Shock Corridor), and delivers a baby inside a German tank. These stories are lucid and fresh. Fuller's memory didn't fade at all in 40 years. There is no sentimentality, no message, no justification. It's just a first-hand account of the horrors and wonders of war.

The movie ends after the crew stumble upon the ovens the Germans used for their prisoners. One American soldier finds a live German and begins to shoot him, slowly, repeatedly, one bullet at a time. But the horror doesn't go away.

Fuller's most expensive and most ambitious movie to date was financed and distributed by a big studio (20th Century Fox) to his widest audience ever. It seemed like Fuller would finally get his day in the sun. It didn't last. The great director only made four more movies. One, White Dog, was banned and never released commercially. The last three were financed with foreign money and, again, never released commercially in the US. Fuller died last year at the age of 87.

Thankfully, this is one of Fuller's easiest movies to find on video. It's an American masterpiece by one of the last great American directors.

Note: I wrote the above review in 1998, just after Fuller's death and just before the release of a pair of new WWII movies, Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line. Now in 2004, the film critic Richard Schickel has spearheaded a "reconstruction," using the original screenplay and novelization, that brings the film up to 163 minutes, which is much closer to Fuller's original vision and suggests that his "4 hour" version was merely a pipe dream. The new version keeps a narrator that Fuller disliked, but the result is even better than before. It's far more nuanced and the film's various episodes are more effectively balanced. Not to mention that Marvin and Hamill get more screen time and thus more of a chance to round out their performances. As of December 2004, the film is making the rounds in revival houses, but I will keep readers updated as to a video/DVD release.

Warner Home Video has done The Big Red One: The Reconstruction proud with their two-disc DVD release; it already stands as a strong contender for the year's best DVD. Schickel provides a commentary track for the feature film on disc one. Disc two comes with a 47-minute featurette about the making of the film, plus the restoration. There's also a 55-minute documentary about Fuller, from "The Men Who Made the Movies" series. Then we get "Anatomy of a Scene," in which the restoration technicians show how they put certain scenes together. Next is deleted and alternate scenes, with commentary, then a twelve-minute newsreel about the original "big red 1," a 30-minute promo reel for the 1980 release, stills gallery, three trailers (two for the 1980 release and one for the 2004 release) and two radio spots from 1980.

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