“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
“THIS IS FICTIONAL LIFE
BASED ON FACTUAL DEATH.”
So begins one of the most powerful films about World War II ever made, Samuel Fuller’s quasi-autobiographical The Big Red One (1980). Putatively, it is a story about four young soldiers and their grizzled sergeant serving in the US First Infantry Division during the war. Yet Fuller’s film transcends its setting and circumstance to become a quietly fathomless examination of war itself, and the humans who become snared within it, whether soldiers or civilians.
Sam Fuller is widely hailed as one of America’s greatest post-war film auteurs, known for making intensely psychological, often painfully humanist films like The Baron of Arizona (1950), Pickup on South Street (1953), Shock Corridor (1963), and The Naked Kiss (1964) that fundamentally inspired the French New Wave of the late 1950s and 1960s. During the Korean War boom in war pictures Fuller also produced masterpieces of the genre like The Steel Helmet (1951) and Fix Bayonets! (1951). It is worth noting that Fuller both wrote and directed all of the films listed above as well as the majority of his other projects right up until his death in 1997. Fuller is truly one of the great American filmmakers, and The Big Red One is perhaps his most personal film, and the one that was closest to his heart.
During World War II, Sam Fuller was an infantryman in the 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Infantry Division – the Big Red One. He fought in North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, Belgium, Germany, and Czechoslovakia, where he took part in the liberation of Falkenau Concentration Camp in 1945. Along the way, Fuller earned a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star, and on June 6, 1944 at Omaha Beach – a Silver Star. In a very real way then, The Big Red One is Fuller’s own story, and indeed, the cigar smoking, aspiring writer Private Zab (Robert Carradine) is a fictionalized version of Fuller himself. The most astonishing thing about Fuller’s war record, apparently even to Fuller himself, is the fact that he survived, and this is the central theme of The Big Red One: survival.
There is no patriotic flag-waving here, no bombastic rhetoric of a “Good War” fought against unspeakable evil. This is a story of five men whose aspiration is simply to survive one more day. The Big Red One has Fuller’s trademark dark humor throughout, and the portrait it paints of the strange bonds that form between men in combat who somehow manage to stay alive and together time after time is perhaps the most fully realized representation of that relationship on film. As are the shocking, yet grindingly gradual changes worked on the characters and psyches of the four young privates as the film progresses. As an example, Private Griff (Mark Hamill), the squad sharpshooter, cannot bring himself to shoot a man whose face he can see – until a scene late in the film, where the squad is helping liberate a concentration camp, and Griff comes across a German soldier hiding among the ashes of a cold crematorium oven. More than seeing his face, Griff in less than five feet away from the German, who is just as young as Griff himself, but Griff begins pulling the trigger of his M1 again and again and again, replacing spent clips with fresh one’s until he is out of ammo, at which point, the Sergeant (Lee Marvin) passes by, looks over his shoulder, and wordlessly hands him another clip. Not a single line of dialogue is spoken throughout the scene.
Oddly enough, the human silences of the film are what lend it much of its power. Fuller has a mastery of the space between the notes, and the ability to translate nonverbal communication to the screen in a completely comprehensible manner. At the center of these eloquent silences is the Sergeant, brilliantly given life by Lee Marvin, who manages to turn laconic, hard-bitten, granite-faced stoicism into Shakespearian articulations of the human condition. In The Big Red One, Lee Marvin says more with a slightly raised eyebrow above the hint of a sneer than Faulkner can in a three-paragraph run-on sentence, and when the Sergeant smiles into the face of a new born baby he has just, unexpectedly helped to deliver, it’s like the rainbow after the goddamn flood: brand new hope for every sinner on the planet. (On a side note, Marvin was also a World War II combat vet serving with the the 4th Marine Division. He was wounded by machine gun fire during the battle of Saipan when most of his unit was killed during the assault on Mount Tapochau. His sciatic nerve severed, Marvin was awarded the Purple Heart and Presidential Unit Citation, and given a medical discharge in 1945.)
Samuel Fuller made a lot of truly incredible films, but The Big Red One is, far and away, his magnum opus. So of course, Lorimar, the studio which produced it in 1980, butchered it. IN its original theatrical release, The Big Red One ran 1 hour and 53 minutes. Fuller himself famously, if privately, lamented the four and a half hour version he had intended. While the theatrical version did well with critics it failed at the box office, but became something of a cult classic. In 2004, Richard Schickel and Warner Brothers (who in the intervening years had bought and absorbed Lorimar) released the “reconstructed” version of the film recreated from Fuller’s own shooting script and 70,000 feet of film from Warner Brothers’ vaults. Coming in at 2 hours, 42 minutes, the reconstruction is likely the closest we will get to Fuller’s true vision, especially as it appears from Fuller’s own notes and materials that the four and a half hour version was likely an exaggeration on his part.
In any event, The Big Red One: The Reconstruction is an astonishing piece of American film-making, and completes sequences that in the theatrical release were obviously incomplete, while also filling in much that while not glaringly absent in the original release moves the film from merely great into the realm of the sublime. For that too is a sign of Fuller’s mastery of his subject, not merely the horror, the humor, the roar and silence of war, but the brain-twisting surreality of it as well. Chillingly, it is also The Reconstruction which restored a crucial element cut from the original release: children. For as Fuller himself put it “you’ll see that in all my war pictures, children everywhere, because that’s all I ever saw.”
The Big Red One earns its place in the Ten Percent as both an outstanding example of a war film and a painstakingly crafted sculpture of humanity that goes beyond the myths of “the Greatest Generation” to the everyday realities of people just getting through another day, whether in Hell or somewhere next door. So take a Saturday afternoon and curl up with this magnificent example of American film. It might break your heart. It might make you laugh out loud. It might make you tear up. Most likely, it will make you do all three. And that, Readers Mine, is what the Ten Percent is all about.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (fall 2016). You can find Dale online at her blog unfetteredbrilliance.blogspot.com and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at solomonmaos.com and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.