The Big Red One - The Reconstruction
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Sam Fuller's The Big Red One was already one of the best films of 1980, despite the fact that the version released to theaters ran barely half as long as the director's cut. Fuller had been America's ballsiest B-movie auteur, an ex-newspaper reporter of the hardnosed breed who made fiercely personal, radically stylized, and politically outspoken films between the early '50s (The Steel Helmet, Pickup on South Street) and the early '60s (Shock Corridor). The Big Red One was his long-dreamt-of account of World War II as experienced by his own squad of the 1st Infantry Division, USA, from the first shot fired (by a dead man, on the coast of North Africa) to the last (in a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia).
Even in the studio-truncated version, there was no shortage of astonishing moments and sequences: the squad choking on dust in a bat-filled cave in North Africa as German tanks clatter past the entrance; Fuller's cold-blooded distillation of the D-Day slaughter on Omaha Beach, with a wrist watch on a dead arm in the surf marking time as the water slopping over it grows redder; the rifle squad delivering a Frenchwoman's baby in a German tank on a battlefield full of corpses; a commando-like raid on Nazi troops bivouacked in a Belgian insane asylum. A quarter-century later, film critic Richard Schickel and Warner Bros. executive Brian Jamieson succeeded in restoring 15 never-seen sequences and fleshing out 23 others to create The Big Red One: The Reconstruction, a "new" film nearly an hour longer.
Above all, BR1: The Reconstruction has a rhythm the 1980 cut lacked. The arc of years, battles, and battlegrounds is so much more satisfying. Greater play is given to Fuller's feeling for children caught up in the sidewash of history and atrocity. And the 2004 cut puts sex back into the movie, not orgiastically but as a fact of life and a rarely forgotten driving force. We can see now that Fuller touched, bluntly and shockingly, on the phenomenon of infiltrators--English-speaking German warriors who donned GI khaki and moved among their enemies waiting for a chance to strike.
It's also apparent, as it was not in 1980, that Lee Marvin as the eternal Sergeant leading the young squad is magnificent. This was Marvin's greatest role, rivaled only by his walking dead man in John Boorman's Point Blank. Just beneath the masterly implacability, we glimpse the tenderness, rage, dark humor, experience, and wisdom beyond guilt that have enabled him to survive, to preserve others and to soldier on. His performance, like Fuller's film, is a masterpiece. --Richard T. Jameson
- Over 40 minutes of added footage
- Alternate scenes
- Anatomy of a Scene: Watch the director at work and examine the before/after restoration comparisons
- New documentary The Real Glory: Reconstructing The Big One
- Profile: The Men Who Make the Movies: Samuel Fuller
- War department film: The Fighting First
- 1980 promo reel, theatrical trailer, and TV and radio spots
- 2004 reconstruction trailer
- Stills gallery
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Fuller was one of Hollywood’s true originals, a former newspaper man and author who fought in World War II in the European theater, serving with the First Infantry Division; after the war he found employment in Hollywood, first as a scriptwriter, then as a director, specializing in B movies with a certain distinctive style, that, in time, would win him legions of fans and admirers, especially among the young film makers of the 60’s and 70’s. A Sam Fuller film often tackled subjects and themes other directors would shy away from, and his war movies, westerns and melodramas were known for their hard edged wit and for not pulling any punches. Fuller’s dream project was to make a movie about his experiences in WWII, one that took him more than two decades to get made, but finally in 1978, he was able to obtain financing and begin filming using a script he himself authored. This movie was to be an appreciation of the men Fuller had served alongside with during the war, and, I think, his way of reminding the generations that came afterward just who had fought so hard to preserve the freedoms they enjoyed. Sadly, the producers took the film away from Fuller once it was completed, cut the nearly three hour film down to less than two and released it in the late summer of 1980, where it did very lackluster business despite a good reception at the Cannes film festival and favorable reviews from critics.
Though Lee Marvin and Sam Fuller did not live to see the 2004 reconstituted version of THE BIG RED ONE, I think both would be enormously proud of the restoration of one of their finest films. Though not a “director’s cut,” the DVD, with an exceptional commentary by critic Richard Schiekel, and running nearly three hours, gives us the gritty, infantryman’s view of World War II that Fuller wanted us to see. The longer version has a stronger narrative flow as the movie follows a unit of young American GI’s and their much older Sergeant (a veteran of WWI) through a series of battles with Germans, starting with North Africa and ending with the liberation of a concentration camp in Germany at the war’s end. There is one marvelously staged and striking scene after another, as these young men go from one theater of battle to another, starting out as fresh and nervous recruits and ending up as battle hardened vets, sticking together and surviving one deadly encounter with the Nazis after another, outlasting most of the replacements who come to fill the ranks; and all the time led by Marvin’s tough Sergeant, in a role that fit him as perfectly as his uniform. The young men are played by Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine (as a character based on Fuller himself), Bobby Di Cicco, and Kelly Ward; all of whom should have gone on to be much bigger stars. Seigfried Rauch is Schroeder, a German counterpart to Marvin’s Sergeant, who comes in and out of the story multiple times before the fateful final scene. One of the replacements is played by Perry Lang, whose face is familiar to anyone who watched a lot of teen comedies back in the day.
What struck me most about this film is its lack of typical Hollywood war movie theatrics and heroics, as when Marvin’s Sergeant is reunited with the young men in his squad after being briefly captured during the battle at the Kasserine Pass, where most of his untested squad threw down their rifles and fled the Germans. You expect Marvin to tear them a new one when he finds them relaxing on a North African beach, which would have happened if John Wayne (who had once been considered for the part in the 50’s) had played the character. Instead, Fuller stages the reunion in a long shot, we don’t hear a word, but the emotion of the moment is clear. Hamill’s sensitive Griff, has a problem with pulling the trigger when face to face with the enemy, yet in every other way, he is a competent, brave and effective soldier (especially in the D-Day sequence), yet Griff is never confronted by his fellow infantrymen, never called “yellow” and forced to prove his courage to the satisfaction of others. There is a point to this subplot and Fuller resolves it in the finale. We get the full sense of the combat soldier’s view of this world, where the ground was constantly shifting under their feet: they are charging into a German held building and taking fire in the afternoon, and then one of them is having sex with female partisan that evening; being shot at from snipers on the way to eliminating an 88 gun, and once the deadly mission is completed, sitting down to dinner with grateful Italians. There is the constant presence of children, over and over, Fuller returns them and shows in vivid ways the impact of war upon them; this is another thing rooted in Fuller’s own wartime experience. This has to be the first film to note that American soldiers died from heat attacks on the front lines. The film had a limited budget, but Fuller did amazing things with it, they only had a couple of tanks to use, but you would never know it except from Schiekel’s commentary; the D-Day scene may pale in comparison with the one in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, or THE LONGEST DAY, but it works within this movie. There is the expected blood and gore, but nothing like what Sam Peckinpah would have done if he’d been the director; I think Fuller would have considered that exploitive and disrespectful.
With his gray hair and weathered face, Lee Marvin had his last great role as the unnamed Sergeant; he was a wounded Marine veteran of the Pacific and knew this character inside and out. Reportedly, he and Fuller were in perfect harmony on the set, each knowing what the other wanted. He clearly trusted Fuller implicitly, even going so far as to allow a degenerate German orderly to kiss him on the lips (surely a first in Marvin’s career) in the Tunis sequence when the Sergeant has been captured. I think the final sequence between the Sergeant and the small boy he has liberated from the Nazi death camp is the finest thing Marvin did in his long career; it is simply unforgettable. As the 80’s wore on, Marvin’s years of hard drinking and living caught up with him, he would pass away in 1987, and be buried at Arlington. Quite fitting for the man some of us consider to be the greatest American badass ever.
Why did THE BIG RED ONE fail at the box office? By the summer of 1980, the era of the big World War II epic of the late 50’s and 60’s had passed and there seemed to be nothing more to say about a conflict fading into history; APOCALYPSE NOW was playing in theaters and audiences wanted to see movies about Vietnam; they wanted to see Mark Hamill fight Darth Vader with a light saber, not shoot Germans with an M-1 rifle. The only person anyone wanted to see fighting Nazis in the 80’s was Indiana Jones. Another good movie had fallen victim to bad timing. After the failure of THE BIG RED ONE and the shelving of his controversial film, WHITE DOG, the following year, Sam Fuller turned his back on Hollywood for good, working in Europe for many years; truly our loss.
Yet, it stands now as one of the great American war films, and a definitive statement on the men who defeated Hitler’s war machine. THE BIG RED ONE is moving, but brutally unsentimental, horrific and funny at the same time, a film that gets better with repeat viewings. Wherever they are, I am sure Lee Marvin and Sam Fuller would be well pleased with how it turned out.
This is not poignant and humanistic film that is :All Quiet on the Western Front" but memorable in its own way.
The extra features are quite interesting as well with discussions of what was required to include the missing portions pf the film. Fuller and Marvin were not alive for the restoration interviews but their personalities enhance the flavor of the extras.
As well, it allows Lee Marvin the space to turn in the greatest performance of his career as he embodies that theme, "the only glory in war is surviving."