A bona fide American film maudit, The Big Red One was snubbed by audiences who'd rather have seen its juvenile lead Mark Hamill fighting intergalactic battles, cut by its producers, and even seized by Manchester's Vice Squad when they misunderstood the threat to public decency suggested by the title. In fact, the big red one in question is the rouged badge of courage sewn to the epaulettes of the First Infantry Division serving America through World Wars I and II - the exact same division that maverick writer-director Sam Fuller himself once served with. Much of what's great about the film is in its stitching - and its suggestion that, in wartime, any outfit was as likely to be torn or ripped apart as remain intact - which is why even a slightly trimmed version might have seemed like an injustice.
It opens with unnamed grunt Lee Marvin knifing a German soldier within hours of the Armistice being signed at the end of WWI, then flashes forward to WW2 and finds Marvin - now promoted to Sergeant - heading a youthful battalion's march north from Africa through Sicily to Omaha Beach and beyond. His fresh-faced men are soldiers of fortune indeed: blessed with a preternaturally lucky streak, they make their way through a series of varyingly fortuitous events, assisting during an attack on a Belgian mental asylum, and after a woman gives birth in a tank. (There's one great linguistic gag here, as the soldiers hesitate to use the French for push - poussez - because it sounds like the American word for what these accidental midwives are looking at.)
The picaresque results are something like Candide as retold by a service veteran. We get the expected sniper hunts and beach landings, sequences which must have influenced Spielberg in the run-up to Saving Private Ryan, but Fuller's personal experience of war, and his journalist's eye, keeps manifesting in the unusual emphasis placed on haunting details like the crucifix planted on a battlefield, the watch on a dead soldier's wrist, or Marvin casually tossing an eviscerated testicle as though it were a dud grenade. A certain morality is evident, but the film seems a quieter and more nuanced statement than the fevered disgust Peckinpah displayed in Cross of Iron: this isn't necessarily war as good or bad, but war as it just might be - a competing mass of narratives, some formative and redemptive, others repetitive and destructive.
A reconstruction of the film, overseen by critic Richard Schickel and running to two hours 40 minutes (as opposed to the theatrically released two-hour cut), was finally released in the UK in April 2005, eight years after the director's passing. This version - which opens with the title card "This film is fictional life inspired by actual death" - makes a strong case for the film being Fuller's most personal and heartfelt endeavour via the reinsertion of several new and telling details. Condoms are unfolded over rifles to keep the water out of them; the battalion is put to sleep by German propaganda broadcasts; Algerians remove American ears as trophies.
One extraordinary sequence sees Marvin putting an abrupt end to what was presumably his first gay screen kiss ("You've got bad breath, Fritz"), and a love scene, between Hamill and Stéphane Audran at the Belgian asylum, serves a similar purpose to that between Martin Sheen and Aurore Clément in Apocalypse Now Redux: a note of tenderness with which to break up the carnage. An extended coda in Central Europe as the Armistice approaches gets a bit samey, but better connects ending to opening. Generally, this version benefits from greater density of incident, and helps flesh out what was already a pretty fascinating skeleton. A couple of dialogue additions also point up what a balanced piece of frontline storytelling this is: if it has Candide on one shoulder, it almost certainly has Robert Capa on the other.
(March 2003/April 2005)
The Big Red One - The Reconstruction is available on DVD through Warner Home Video.