BIG RED ONE, THE: THE RECONSTRUCTIONNR
Samuel Fuller saw The Big Red One as the crowning achievement in his long career as writer and director of films like Pickup on South Street and Shock Corridor. A semi-autobiographical account of his experiences in the infantry during World War II, the film covered everything from fighting Rommel in Africa to liberating concentration camps in Czechoslovakia. But when Lorimar released The Big Red One in 1980, it cut out almost an hour of material, leaving a shell of a film that puzzled critics and left audiences indifferent.
Film critic and documentarian Richard Schickel has managed to restore much of the footage, bringing the film close to what Fuller originally intended. Based on Fuller's shooting script and notes, the reconstruction includes eight scenes cut from the release print, and restores several shots trimmed to keep the film's running time under two hours. In total, some 40 minutes have been added, including a scene in which Fuller appears as a newsreel cameraman.
A six-minute, black-and-white prologue set in France during World War I explains the origins of the Big Red One, the First Infantry Division. In 1942, a grizzled First Infantry sergeant (Lee Marvin) leads his soldiers in a nighttime landing on a beach in Algeria. They include Griff (Mark Hamill), a sharpshooter with doubts about his courage; Zab (Robert Carradine), a cigar-smoking writer from Brooklyn; and Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco) and Johnson (Kelly Ward). By the time they reach Sicily in 1943, they are the only five left out of a 12-man unit. As Zab, playing Fuller's alter ego, notes, 'Replacements were dead men who temporarily had the use of their arms and legs.' Survival is their only concern, whether battling tanks, snipers or infiltrators.
Fuller, who died in 1997, was not a subtle filmmaker, and The Big Red One suffers at times from blunt symbolism, overemphatic editing, and the director's characteristically loud, blustery tone. But Fuller's version of war has the ring of truth, from the clammy fear that spreads over a unit waiting to attack to the stutter of single-shot rifles during battle to the unsettling presence of children as the soldiers pick their way past the fallen enemy.
A master of low-budget filmmaking, Fuller achieved tremendous effects out of almost nothing. He staged a D-Day landing at Omaha Beach with what looks like one ship and 20 extras, and managed to make it feel more brutal and frightening than films with ten times the budget. Fuller paid less attention to his actors, and the biggest drawback to The Big Red One today may be its relatively weak cast. On the other hand, Lee Marvin, a veteran himself, turned in a superlative performance. His understated authority and sincerity give the entire film a dignity it would otherwise lack.