"The Big Red One"

The only sad thing about the gloriously reconstructed version of Sam Fuller's World War II film "The Big Red One" is that Fuller isn't around to see it.

Published November 12, 2004 9:00PM (EST)

If Lee Marvin's face were not already part of American movie iconography, the reconstructed version of Sam Fuller's "The Big Red One" would place it there. Fuller takes a face we think we know, a pulp, tough-guy version of D.H. Lawrence's description of the essential American soul, "hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer," and brings out the other qualities -- "the love, the democracy" -- which Lawrence said were just "by-play" in the American character. They are qualities most of Marvin's other movie roles left out.

You think of Marvin tossing a pot of boiling coffee in Gloria Grahame's face in "The Big Heat" (and having Grahame toss it back in his face later in the movie), or gut-shot and going after mob boss Ronald Reagan in "The Killers," or standing as imposing and impervious as King Kong while Angie Dickinson wears herself out slapping him senseless in "Point Blank." You don't think of Marvin tenderly accepting the flowers a little Italian girl has woven into his combat helmet, or nursing a young boy he's liberated from a concentration camp, as he does in Fuller's movie.

Our "Lee Marvin" is too tough for that. Doesn't his face prove it? That long mug, with the sunken cheeks and hard jaw, the nose and full lips seemingly the only flesh on it. It's the kisser of a hangdog sociopath and at first glance it's immobile, impossibly hard. And yet all through "The Big Red One," Marvin's face is riven by tremors of guilt, fear, pride, disgust and fatherly concern -- as if his skin were made of rubberized granite.

Marvin will never be classed with Brando or Olivier. He didn't have the range or the ferocity. But as the American infantry sergeant shepherding a group of "dogfaces" through combat in the European theater during World War II, Marvin gives the kind of performance that is the essence of movie acting.

He connects with the four young actors playing his platoon -- Robert Carradine, Mark Hamill, Bobby Di Cicco and Kelly Ward -- but he's scaled his acting to the camera. Each gesture, each line reading, is precise, modest, on a pitch equal to the moment. Nothing sticks out -- not even that trademark purring snarl; you never see him "acting." But the smallest gradations of expression register large and clear on screen. Marvin is so convincing that by the end of "The Big Red One" you expect to encounter his face in a documentary or a book of photojournalism on the American soldiers who fought in World War II (as Marvin himself did, lying about his age to get into the Marines).

For Sam Fuller, "The Big Red One," based on his own experiences with the Army's 1st Infantry Division ("the Big Red One") in World War II, was something like a documentary. It was the project that obsessed him through most of his career. Even after he made it.

When Fuller finally got that chance to make the film in the late '70s, he was working with a budget that kept being scaled downward (it wound up being less than $4 million for the entire movie). In his marvelous, posthumously published autobiography, "A Third Face," he says that the final cut he turned in ran to four-and-a-half hours. Predictably, the movie was cut further before its release (though not by Fuller) and the version that opened in 1980 ran only 113 minutes. Until his death in 1997, Fuller wished that someone would restore the film to its original form.

The only sad thing about the new 158-minute cut spearheaded by the critic Richard Schickel is that Fuller isn't here to see it. The reconstruction premiered to a rapturous reception this past May at Cannes, and it plays in the New York Film Festival before its theatrical run starts in November. Based on Fuller's shooting script and notes, it may not be his four-and-a-half hour dream cut, but I can't imagine that Fuller wouldn't be thrilled by it. This "The Big Red One" is a complete work, coherent and forceful, though it fights its way to that distinction past a host of flaws. As the longest and biggest of Fuller's movies, it magnifies the essence -- good and bad -- of his work.

When a director known for tight, 90-minute genre pictures takes on a topic this large -- the progress of the American infantry through Europe from 1942 to 1945 -- not to mention one that he had carried in his head for 35 years, it's perhaps inevitable that the result will be a bit sprawling. There are sections here where the rhythms feel lumpy, where some of the characters aren't properly introduced. Not even all of the five main actors register.

Mark Hamill, as Griff, the kid who seized up in combat, gets a great scene towards the end, and as Zab, the character who is the stand-in for Fuller, Robert Carradine chews on the director's beloved cigars and shows the wily, squirrelly quality that distinguishes him from his acting brothers, Keith and David. Bobby Di Cicco and Kelly Ward's characters, though, are barely fleshed out. And the newly added scenes featuring a German officer whose trek through Europe parallels the American characters' combat route don't work at all; the actor who plays him is the cold, blond, blue-eyed Aryan familiar from too many bad war movies.

But it's niggling to dwell on the flaws of a movie with such cumulative impact. Foremost and proudly a tabloid filmmaker, Fuller spent his career looking for stories and moments to "grab them by the balls" as he says again and again in "A Third Face." His movies are prosaic, hysterical, crude, brutal. Key lines of dialogue pop out of the characters' mouths sounding like a cross between a topic sentence and a screaming headline on an Extra! edition being hawked by a newsboy.

But if Fuller didn't achieve perfection, neither did he fall into mythmaking (the way that John Ford did). Working on tight schedules and budgets, Fuller wasn't directing for the ages, which may be why his movies still retain their impolite punch. If you go into "The Big Red One" looking for perfection, you're not going to find it. If you like your art subtle, you won't like Sam Fuller -- but if you like your art subtle you've got no business watching Sam Fuller movies.

I mean no condescension to call Fuller a great primitive. At his best he was in touch with the primal power of movies. Landing in Normandy during the D-Day invasion, the young Fuller had seen a soldier's severed arm in the surf with a still-ticking wristwatch attached. In the D-Day sequence of "The Big Red One," the watch on a dead man's arm is used to convey the hour-by-hour passing of the Allies attempting to advance onto Omaha Beach. Each time Fuller cuts back to that watch, we see that another hour has passed, and we note that the water washing over it has become redder. That's the sort of terse and sometimes surprisingly eloquent movie shorthand that Sam Fuller mastered.

There may still be a temptation to classify "The Big Red One" as a "good" version of one of those old-fashioned Hollywood war movies that featured tough, lantern-jawed officers leading a melting pot of inexperienced soldiers to victory and, it was always implicit, to manhood. But as Fuller told Tim Robbins in a documentary that Robbins made about him, he didn't believe in the concept of either heroes or cowards. The point of view in "The Big Red One" will be familiar to anyone who has read World War II combat memoirs, but it's still a unique one for American movies.

The film gets the combination of superstition, callousness, black humor, grousing, fierce loyalty to your comrades, disdain for replacements and sentimentality that is the infantryman's mindset. At times the film is both hilarious and appalling, as when Marvin's sergeant, tossing away the bloody testicle of a soldier who has stepped on a trip wire, tells the soldier not to worry, "that's why they gave you two."

And Fuller, who had a passionate loathing for bigots and bullies, trounces the old movie cliché about how different ethnicities came together to fight a common enemy. A soldier starts asking Bobby Di Cicco's Vinci how a "wop" like him got into the Army and wonders why he isn't singing "O Sole Mio." Vinci obliges with a lovely version of the sentimental Italian favorite, just after sticking his rifle in the soldier's mouth.

The old line goes that there are no atheists in foxholes. In "The Big Red One," Fuller is saying that, in the midst of combat, there are no fascists or democrats either. Fuller understands that, under fire, no soldier is thinking of grand objectives. Instead of extended combat scenes, Fuller gives us the decisive moments that portray battle as a fight to survive and nothing more. In the midst of the D-Day sequence there is a passage concerning the building of a "Bangalore torpedo," a long tubular device that must be assembled on the battlefield, which means that we watch as one soldier after another scurries from a ditch and is shot to death attempting to put the damn thing together. It's the sort of absurdist horror that Joseph Heller might have invented.

The movie is strung together out of a thousand remembered anecdotes like these. There's a bookended structure to "The Big Red One" that only reveals itself at the very end. The episodic nature of the movie mirrors the experiences of the characters as they find themselves in one place after another -- North Africa, Sicily, Normandy on D-Day, Belgium, Germany -- barely having the time to get their bearings or save their skins before they're on to the next spot. Between these locales, Fuller keeps returning to an image of the soldiers crammed with others into a transport ship, as if they were daily commuters on their way to work in hell.

As always in Fuller's movies there are sequences where the sentimental is inextricable from the tough-minded. In just about the best scene, the Americans assist a woman in labor, delivering her baby in a German tank cleared of corpses, immediately after they've successfully eluded a German ambush. The scene mixes the sentimental with good, lively low comedy, and contains one genuinely surreal detail: hanging belts of ammunition used as stirrups, the bullets pointed at the pregnant woman's belly.

This one-thing-after-another approach suits the nature of what's essentially a personal reminiscence. We expect war movies to be epics. In "The Big Red One" Fuller treats a huge subject as modestly as if he were making a much smaller picture. Throughout, Fuller keeps a tight focus on the sergeant and the four remaining members of his platoon. We know as much of the war's progress as they do.

The cinematographer Adam Greenberg follows Fuller's lead: Even in the midst of sequences that must have seemed opportunities for virtuoso work, Greenberg keeps the camera on the characters. The few panoramas are striking, particularly a blasted battlefield where the only thing standing is an enormous wooden crucified Christ; on close-up we note insects are crawling out of the Savior's eyes. Even the locale was modest: With the exception of Ireland standing in for Belgium, it's Israel doubling for Western Europe throughout the movie.

At times, as when an officer rises on Omaha Beach and announces, "There are two kinds of men on this beach. The dead. And those who are about to die. So let's get the hell off this beach and at least die inland!" you may feel Fuller's old Hollywood roots (though the incident is recounted in his autobiography). If "The Big Red One" is difficult to get a fix on, it may be that the surface seems conventional but the sensibility is harder than what most Hollywood war movies allowed. Those films depicted glory in combat. Fuller belongs to a generation of American men who, while they know what they did was necessary, saw no glory in it.

It's not just the compromised Hollywood war films that feel less honest than "The Big Red One," it's many of the prestige American war pictures that have appeared since the late '80s, the ones hailed for their new maturity and realism. When the late writer Veronica Geng said in 1988 that Oliver Stone's "Platoon" wasn't "as good as a Sam Fuller war movie," she was committing a heresy against the prevailing critical orthodoxy. With the exception of Brian De Palma's "Casualties of War" (which never found an audience), none of the big prestige war movies that have appeared since the late '70s -- the mucked-up "Apocalypse Now"; "Platoon" and Stone's even more appalling "Born on the Fourth of July"; "Full Metal Jacket"; and "Saving Private Ryan," a film that pushes war-movie gore to its limit while returning the subject to '40s homefront platitudes -- can match the humanity, the craft, or the deft mixing of moods and emotions in "The Big Red One."

It may seem strange to speak of the decorousness of a tabloid filmmaker, but the key to the power of "The Big Red One" can be found in these sentences from Fuller's autobiography: "See, there's no way you can portray war realistically, not in a movie nor in a book. If you really want to make readers understand a battle, a few pages of your book would be booby-trapped. For moviegoers to get the idea of real combat, you'd have to shoot at them every so often from either side of the screen."

That's the voice of someone who understands the limitations of art. Compare it to the attitude revealed by the Omaha Beach sequence that opens "Saving Private Ryan." Spielberg's decision to fill the screen with dangling limbs and spilling entrails seems now like an arrogant faith in the power of movies to supplant, or at least equal, life.

The unexpected discretion Fuller shows here makes itself felt in the climactic sequence where Marvin and his men liberate a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. The sequence consists of perfectly selected details: the wide, fearful eyes of inmates huddled in the dark; the low-angled shot of one of the soldiers, proceeding cautiously with the rifle but unaware of the meaning of the crematory smoke stack hovering over him; the few bones we see when the soldiers discover the oven; and the boy Marvin's sergeant nurses staring at him as if he cannot grasp what it means to be treated kindly by a human being.

The sequence does justice to Teodor Adorno's admonition that there could be no poems after Auschwitz. This is not poetry. Fuller's images are spare, descriptive prose. And yet out of all the strung together sequences, out of Fuller's meat-and-potatoes aesthetic, there emerges a valedictory grace that has more power, more unity than the grand "statements" of younger and more acclaimed directors.

Fuller was never a poetic director, but in "The Big Red One" he finds what in himself was closest to lyricism. Fuller's movie is like flowers thrown on a battlefield in remembrance, and it makes the overblown war movies that have followed seem like cheap and tatty Veteran's Day poppies.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

MORE FROM Charles Taylor

Related Topics ------------------------------------------