For Remembrance Day, I thought it only appropriate to choose an underrated war film as the subject of my column and there aren’t many better candidates than Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One. Today’s generation are probably most familiar with that term because of the video game, Call of Duty 2: Big Red One. However, “The Big Red One” is a term that was originally used to describe the United States 1st Infantry Division in World War II, who all had a big red numerical “1” on their uniform’s shoulder patch. Director Samuel Fuller was a member of the 1st Infantry Divison for years during the Second World War and in spite of being engaged in numerous battles, managed to make it through the war alive. Fuller wanted to make a film about his experiences for many years, but did not get an official green light on the production until 1980. After Warner Bros. deemed Fuller’s final cut of the film to be way too long, they heavily trimmed it down to 113 minutes for its release. He always regretted that his much longer version never got to see the light of day, but after Fuller died in 1997, Time magazine film critic Richard Schickel undertook the task of uncovering the deleted footage and restoring the longer version of the film. Using Fuller’s original screenplay and production notes, Schickel had the film restored to what he believed was as close as possible to Fuller’s preferred version. Since Fuller was no longer around to give his final seal of approval, the release of the 162-minute version of The Big Red One was not billed as a “director’s cut”, but a “reconstruction”. Whether or not this was the way Fuller originally wanted his movie to be seen, it did help bring a hugely underrated war film into the public eye again and made it even better.
The main characters depicted in The Big Red One are described as “The Sergeant’s Four Horsemen”. Led by the nameless sergeant (Lee Marvin), they are a tight-knit group of soldiers within the 1st Infantry who somehow manage to make it through dangerous situation after dangerous situation during the war without getting killed. Their names are Griff (Mark Hammill), Zab (Robert Carradine), Vinci (Bobby Di Cocco) and Johnson (Kelly Ward). Zab is obviously the character that Samuel Fuller is modeled after as he provides the voice-over narration for everything that happens while he writes a book about his experiences. The moral of this story is that the “real glory of war is surviving”. “The Sergeant’s Four Horsemen” are not portrayed as particularly heroic characters, just five guys who happen to be very lucky and know how to stay alive. They get to the point where they don’t even bother to learn the names of the new soldiers who join their squad because they usually wind up getting killed very quickly. This story is told from the point-of-view of soldiers who have been almost completely desensitized to war since you rarely see any emotional reactions from them when they witness someone get killed. In one shocking scene, a young solider takes a shot to the groin and when the sergeant finds one of his testicles on the ground, he casually tosses it aside and says “It’s only one of your balls. Don’t worry about it, that’s why God gave you two”. The storyline of The Big Red One is very episodic, but since war itself is very episodic, that’s pretty much the point. The film contains plenty of random moments of black humour which showcase the insanity of war, such as this scene, where the squad is shot at by a child who’s a member of the Hitler Youth, and Lee Marvin decides to punish him by giving him a spanking!
The Big Red One contains many oddball moments like that which are unlike anything you’d ever expect to see in a war film. The narrative is filled with bizarre unexpected occurrences, such as the squadron being forced to deliver a woman’s baby in the middle of a tank, or the sergeant desperately trying to save the life of a Nazi once he realizes he stabbed him after the war officially ended. This is not a war film that specializes in phony melodramatics and very little is learned about the back story of these characters. Though it does present some disturbing and harrowing scenes, the atmosphere is surprisingly cheerful and upbeat a lot of the time. I think that accurately reflects the mindset of “The Sergeant’s Four Horsemen” as they use their cynical sense of humour to deal with all the madness around them and that may be the central reason they’re able to survive for so long while many others die so quickly. While the sergeant in this movie isn’t given a name, they may as well have just called his character Sgt. Lee Marvin since the role is so tailor-made for the actor. Like Sam Fuller, Marvin was also a combat veteran from World War II and understood this material perfectly, and while some critics complained that he was probably too old for the role he was playing, his performance is so good that it’s obvious the film wouldn’t have worked nearly as well without him. Special note should be also made of Mark Hamill’s strong performance as Griff, a role he took on in between the filming of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. At the outset of the film, Griff is a character who freezes up in the middle of combat because he doesn’t have the stomach to kill, but when the squad liberates a concentration camp near the end of the film, killing becomes a very big release for him. In this sequence, Mark Hamill demonstrates that he has a lot more talent and range as an actor than you would expect.
Anyway, The Big Red One is such a unique and atypical war film that it probably isn’t much of a surprise that’s never found a big audience and was a box office failure when it was released. If there’s one well-known war film that I’d probably compare it to, it’s The Hurt Locker, which was told in the same episodic format and didn’t rely on a formulaic story arc, as it simply wanted to present the typical day-to-day life of a soldier in combat. Fuller was not given the huge budget to make a major war epic like Saving Private Ryan, so he decided to make The Big Red One into a smaller, more intimate war film that’s told from the point-of-view of five men who just happen to find themselves involved in many of the most prominent battles of World War II. Fuller does not present a pro or anti-war message here and simply just wants to say: “Yeah, there was a war and I was in it and a bunch of stuff happened”. I’ve never seen the shorter 113-minute version of The Big Red One, but given the episodic nature of the film, I’m sure the studio didn’t have much trouble finding material to cut since its absence wouldn’t have had much effect on the overall narrative. However, the 162-minute “reconstruction” version so effectively conveys the life of a solider who’s been trapped in combat for three straight years that I can’t imagine it being nearly as effective if it was shorter. War films usually tell such straightforward stories that it’s hard to classify many of them as an acquired taste, but that’s pretty much what The Big Red One is. However, those who are interested in seeing a much different take on the genre are advised to check this film out. It may not be the slickest or most polished war film out there, but when is war ever slick and polished anyway?