Big Red One, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/19/04 00:13:15

"Perhaps the greatest film to date on the subject of World War II"
5 stars (Awesome)

When “The Big Red One”, cult icon Sam Fuller’s long-planned autobiographical look at his adventures fighting in most of the major European theaters of W.W.II, was finally released in 1980, it was in a severely truncated form that reduced its original epic length to the confines of a standard two-hour running time; it was still a great film but it had a choppiness to it that couldn’t be entirely explained by the episodic nature of the structure. In a boon to film fans everywhere, critic Richard Schickel has put together from mountains of scrapped scenes and previously unseen footage, using Fuller’s original script as a guide, “The Big Red One: The Reconstruction”; while it cannot be called a “director’s cut” (as Fuller passed away in 1997), it can be called both a masterpiece and perhaps the greatest film ever produced on the subject of the Second World War.

This version of the film runs 169 minutes, not the four hours of lore and, according to Schickel, contains pretty much everything that Fuller had intended to include, aside from a couple of brief sequences from the script that may never have been filmed. The added material consists of expansions of previously-seen scenes (most effectively in the depiction of the invasion of Normandy) and eight entirely new sequences (including a bit involving a sniper that uncannily predates aspects of both “Full Metal Jacket” and “Saving Private Ryan” and another that features Fuller himself in a cameo as a cameraman). The most important additions are expansions of the character of a Nazi soldier who follows the squad throughout-a minor and perplexing presence in the original cut can know be seen as the dark twin of the gruff sergeant portrayed by Lee Marvin-and the running motif of the squad encountering the orphaned children who serve as a stark reminder of the true cost of war. (The scene near the end in which Marvin removes an emaciated child from the horrors of a Czech death camp and stoically watches as he spends the last moments of his wretched life in the warmth of the sun is emotionally devastating-there is more genuine poignancy in those few moments than in the whole of “Schindler’s List”-and reconfirms Marvin’s standing as one of the most indelible of screen icons.

Having seen both versions, this edition plays a lot better and is a much richer experience-far more effective than the similar expansion Francis Ford Coppola attempted a few years ago with “Apocalypse Now Redux”- but the reason why the film works so well today is the same reason why it worked even in a chopped-up form. Fuller’s genius was to resist making any grand statements about the subject of War-the closest thing to a moral to be heard is the terse “Surviving is the only glory in war”-and to see everything from the viewpoint of the soldiers out there on the front lines; this approach allows us to identify with them without resorting to the “touching” details that other filmmakers might have used. The battle scenes are just as striking-while it is evident that Fuller wasn’t working with a large budget (necessitating numerous close-ups to hide the small number of extras and locations), they are chock full of the kind of bravura details (such astracking the duration of the Normandy invasion via a wristwatch floating in theincreasingly bloody foam) that could only have come from someone who was actually there and not from other war movies. As Fuller himself pointed out, no mere film could ever hope to completely capture the feel of combat (to do so would require firing rifles at the audience, in his estimation); that may be true but “The Big Red One” comes closer to achieving that goal than any other that I can recall.

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