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Big Red One, The (1980)

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 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 a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.

The effective cast is headed by Lee Marvin (as the nameless grim, battle-hardened sergeant) with Mark Hamill, Bobby Di Cicco and Robert Carradine (as the dogface who corresponds most closely to Fuller himself).

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.

The Sergeant
Lee Marvin
Mark Hamill
Robert Carradine
Bobby Dicicco
Kelly Ward
Stéphane Audran
Siegfried Rauch
Serge Marquand
Charles Macaulay
Alain Doutey
Vichy Colonel
Maurice Marsac
Dog Face POW
Colin Gilbert
Joseph Clark
Ken Campbell
Doug Werner
Perry Lang
Howard Delman

Samuel Fuller