Maverick B-movie director Samuel Fuller returned from a decade-long hiatus with The Big Red One, a World War II melodrama based upon Fuller’s real-life experiences as a soldier in the U.S. Army’s First Infantry. The picture closely follows a single squad’s experiences as the squad moves from one deployment to the next, spanning D-Day to the end of the war. Episodic, heavy-handed, and meandering, the picture is deeply flawed but nonetheless interesting. Among other things, The Big Red One doesn’t feature any commanding officers—the highest-ranking major character is a sergeant—so it’s very much a grunt’s-eye-view of combat. The soldiers in this movie follow orders without a sense of the overall conflict’s larger political and/or strategic significance, which makes the brutality the soldiers witness (and commit) seem especially gruesome. Additionally, Fuller has a great eye for locations, putting viewers right there in the muck and rubble with physically and spiritually existed Yanks as they plow through seemingly endless waves of enemy combatants. Because Fuller was not a subtle filmmaker, however, the movie’s realistic textures clash with the clunky themes of the storyline.
For instance, the main emotional hook involves the squad leader, Sgt. Possum (Lee Marvin), who was traumatized years earlier when he unknowingly killed a German soldier moments after the World War I armistice was signed. Forever cognizant of war’s costs, Possum has zero tolerance for cowardice—and zero tolerance for avoidable bloodshed. Fuller pays off this character arc in the least believable way possible, ending the picture on a false note. Similarly, a subplot about Pvt. Griff (Mark Hamill) turns trite as Griff overcomes his initial cowardice during a highly unlikely moment of heroism.
Despite all of its narrative excesses and shortcomings, The Big Red One has a hell of a climax, because—as Fuller’s squad did in real life—the movie squad liberates a concentration camp. Demonstrating uncharacteristic restraint, Fuller evokes the soul-shattering horror soldiers must have felt upon encountering the depths of human evil. Photographed in rich color by Adam Greenberg and held together by Dana Kaproff’s efficient musical score, The Big Red One is a grand old mess of a personal statement, which might explain why the film has suffered so much at the hands of outside forces. Although Fuller’s original version ran nearly three hours, Warner Bros. cut the picture to 113 minutes for its initial release. Commercial failure and complaints from Fuller about tampering followed. Years later, well after Fuller’s death in 1997, a restored version running 162 minutes was released to much approval by critics.
In any form, The Big Red One is noteworthy because it’s so clearly a passion piece, and because the best moments ring true. As for Fuller, he remained undaunted by the box-office stillbirth of The Big Red One, directing one more American feature—the relentless race-relations melodrama White Dog (1982)—before transitioning to the small European films that comprise the twilight era of his long and singular career.
The Big Red One: FUNKY