Director: Samuel Fuller
Reconstruction: Richard Schickel
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The ultimate movie is the war movie. It can legitimately include every major and minor event a human being can undergo and give imaginative audiences who have never had to serve in the military or endure the trauma of war on their own soil a raw-boned, multidimensional experience. Some film makers focus on the tragedy of war; others, on its comic misadventures; still others, on pure action. Then there is Sam Fuller, who does all this and more. Even his most straightforward scenes capture all the drama and absurdity of war with a somewhat distanced, even bemused tone.
In The Big Red One, Sam Fuller’s magnus opus and the film he most wanted to make, there is very little room for sentimentality. Our everyman soldiers are too busy moving from mission to mission with little more thought to what they are doing than to stay alive and kill Germans. Each of our main characters—The Sergeant (Lee Marvin) and the Four Horsemen of the 1st Squad (“The Big Red One”), Pvt. Griff (Mark Hamill), Pvt. Zab (Robert Carradine), Pvt. Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco), and Pvt. Johnson (Kelly Ward)—is an archetype who barely emerges as an individual from the screen. That’s the point, of course. They’re cannon fodder to the men pulling the strings, and they know it. So are their enemies.
Griff, the most individual of the “dogfaces” (as Fuller liked to call the regular grunts of war) because he hasn’t lost his conscience, hesitates to shoot a German on the squad’s first combat engagement. He thinks it is murder. The Sergeant corrects him: “We don’t murder. We kill.” Simple. Hunters and hunted, exchanging places on the battlefield. Nothing personal.
The story of this film is relevant to a reading of the director and the reconstructed version. The original film was more than 3 hours long and was hacked to 113 minutes by Lorimar. Rather than denounce and disown the film, Fuller did full publicity for it and said nothing about what some people would call the emasculation of the film. Interesting enough, one of the scenes cut from the film was of an emasculation. The unfortunate soldier who got in the way of the trip-wire explosive yells joyously when he realizes that he only lost one of his balls and still has his penis. Fuller seems to have presciently wrote and shot what would happen to his greatest accomplishment. He had his battle scars, both from war and from an industry that saw him as a director of B films, and knew what The Sergeant knew. Nothing personal.
Some of the scathing reviews of the film I read on the Internet Movie Database seem to fault Fuller for his nearly dispassionate view of war. He saw it, in part, as his stand-in character, Pvt. Vinci, saw it—material for a book. But there’s more going on than that. A very subtle morality tale is taking place, one that holds ideology in contempt. The Sergeant has only a couple of rules that guide his command: 1) it is ok to kill anyone during a war if they pose a physical threat (“cowards”) or are “the enemy” but not before or after, and 2) children should be treated honestly. His counterpart on the German side, Schroeder (Siegfried Rauch), makes the error of believing in his cause. The truncated version of the film, I understand, reduces Schroeder’s role considerably. The reconstruction puts him back in the center of things, where he is needed to make the point that if you believe in anything during a war, you’ll fail. This is Fuller’s indictment of war, and it’s a scathing one of particular relevance in this new age of holy war-making.
Other complaints leveled at the film were “low” production values, a criticism that leaves me scratching my head. If they weren’t filming in North Africa and Sicily, I surely never would have known. Another reinstated scene shows a thrilling battle on horseback in an ancient coliseum in North Africa, a visually splendid and inventive set piece. It is also an ironic setting, showing a battle raging in a place designed for sports and entertainment. We can’t help but notice that we are entertained by this death match as well, and that puts us in touch with our complicity in the bloodsport that is war.
A third complaint was that the use of a knife was a WWI method unsuited to a movie about WWII. This ignores completely that the film starts with Marvin playing a dogface in France during WWI. He’s the only one in the WWII sequences who uses a knife regularly, and uses it tactically to prevent the enemy from hearing shots being fired. By the Second World War, death was already being delivered in a more mechanistic, impersonal way. Marvin reminds us of what we’re really doing when we set out to destroy an enemy, and he does it without sentiment or, it seems, fear. The liberation of a concentration camp is the only part of the film where emotion really takes the foreground. Remember Pvt. Griff, the one with the conscience? He is allowed to express his feelings in full in this sequence, and The Sergeant has a poignant scene with a small boy without the strength to speak. This film saves its sympathy for innocent civilians caught in the middle of a mess, and brings an antiwar message home in the end.
I consider this film nothing less than a masterpiece, and as critic Jonathan Rosenbaum said at the screening I attended, we all owe Richard Schickel an enormous debt of gratitude for restoring 49 crucial minutes, including 15 new scenes, to this, one of the finest of all war films.