The most ambitious war film in Samuel Fuller’s career, a chronicle of his own experiences with the 1st Infantry Division in World War II, The Big Red One was a long time coming.
When it finally made it to the screen, a wholesale re-editing by the studio and a tacked-on narration (by filmmaker Jim McBride) made it something less than Fuller had intended – he originally provided the studio with four-hour and two-hour cuts, both of which were rejected.
Nevertheless, it’s a grand, idiosyncratic war epic with wonderful poetic ideas, intense emotions and haunting images rich in metaphysical portent.
The film follows the fortunes and misfortunes of a small squad from the 1st US Infantry Division (‘The Big Red One’) through World War II, from a beachhead assault on North Africa to France, Sicily, Belgium and on to the liberation of the Falkenau concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.
The effective cast is headed by Lee Marvin as the nameless grim, battle-hardened sergeant, with Star Wars veteran Mark Hamill as one of the youthful soldiers who call themselves the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
The other three young members of the squad are played by Robert Carradine, Bobby Di Cicco and Kelly Ward.
Simultaneously, the sergeant’s German counterpart, a noncommissioned officer (NCO) named Schroeder (Siegfried Rauch), fights in the same skirmishes from the other side, showing unending loyalty to his country and to Hitler.
At the close of the film, Schroeder surprises the sergeant in the woods at night in an attempt to surrender. The sergeant, having just buried a small child released from the Falkenau concentration camp, stabs Schroeder.
The sergeant’s unit then arrives, informing him that the war was over “about four hours ago.” As the squad leaves the area, Pvt. Griff (Mark Hamill) sees that Schroeder is alive. The sergeant and his unit then scramble to save the German soldier’s life on their way back to camp.
Packed with energy and observation, it is full of unforgettable, spellbinding moments and haunting surrealistic images: An inmate in an insane asylum grabbing and using a machine gun while declaring his enthusiasm for war; a soldier carrying a dead child after the liberation of one of the death camps in an uncanny sequence; and a protracted focussing on a corpse’s wristwatch during the Normandy landing – a sequence that Steven Spielberg was clearly well aware of when he made Saving Private Ryan (1998).
The film, shot almost entirely on location in Israel, was two years in the making. A quarry at Rosh Ha’ayin near Tel Aviv doubled for the Kasserine Pass in Tunisia; a Roman amphitheatre at Beit She’an near the Israel-Jordan border stood in for the El Djem Coliseum in Tunisia; North African and European beach invasion scenes were shot on beaches at Caesarea and Netanya, midway between Haifa and Tel Aviv; Sicilian village scenes were shot in Haifa; and an abandoned armoury at Schneller Army Base in Jerusalem stood in for Falkenau concentration camp, its swastikas hidden from the religious school opposite.
Nazi soldiers played by Jewish extras (paid $11 per day), wearing yarmulkes under their helmets.
Castle scenes were filmed in Ireland and winter forest scenes were shot in California’s Sierra Madre Mountains.
The Big Red One premiered at the 33rd Cannes Film Festival in May 1980 and was released in the United States on 18 July.
For a film that had been drastically abridged in the editing process and consigned to limited distribution, it did quite well at the box office ($7.2 million gross) and elicited glowing critical notices.
In 2004, eight years after director Fuller’s death, film critic/historian Richard Schickel brought Fuller’s unrealised dream of a director’s cut to fruition. Using 70,000 feet of vault footage and Fuller’s original shooting script as a guide, Schickel produced The Big Red One: The Reconstruction: a 158-minute version that removes a gratuitous voice-over device and restores 45 minutes of missing content, allowing for more depth and scope, more detailed characterisations, and a more meaningful narrative shape than was evident in the original theatrical release in 1980.
Reviews this time were even more enthusiastic.
Bobby Di Cicco
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