Does "the big red one" refer to the Sam Fuller war flick, or how Judge Patrick Bromley refers to his pickup? You decide.
"This is fictional life based on actual death."—quote from director Sam Fuller's original screenplay for The Big Red One
Legendary maverick director Sam Fuller's most personal film, The Big Red One, was taken away from him by the studio and all but editorially butchered upon its theatrical run in 1980. Now, thanks to film historian Richard Schickel and Warner Bros. (who continue their streak of excellent discs and even better karma), we can see Fuller's film as he originally intended with the newly-released The Big Red One: The Reconstruction.
Facts of the Case
The title of The Big Red One refers to the 1st Infantry Division (focusing on one twelve-man rifle squad, but all of whom are proudly labeled with—you guessed it—a large, red "1" on the arm of their uniforms) fighting overseas in World War II. The "four horsemen" of the squad—they call themselves such as they're the only four members of the original squad to remain following a string of replacements—is comprised of Zab (Robert Carradine, Ghosts of Mars), a would-be author who enlisted for the sake of new material; Griff (Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill), the sensitive sharpshooter undergoing a crisis of conscience; Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco, I Wanna Hold Your Hand), and Johnson (Kelly Ward, Grease), and led by a gruff sergeant (Lee Marvin, The Dirty Dozen, whose weathered and craggy face screams of a thousand stories). Together, the Fighting First sees action from Africa to France, Belgium to Italy, battling for their country and armed with the knowledge that the true glory of war isn't winning—it's surviving.
Most war films can be categorized into two distinct camps: those that tell us about the Glory of War, and those that tell us that War is Hell. The first grouping typically exists to entertain us (and seems to have died out by the time of Viet Nam); the second consists of "important" films—most of the war films of the past thirty years fall into this category, including Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket and Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. And yet here is Sam Fuller's The Big Red One (for the purposes of this review, please know that I am always referring to this new "Reconstruction" unless noted otherwise), a war film that cannot be categorized quite so easily. War, according to Fuller, is neither glorious nor hellish—it's merely something that happens, something to live through. Death is not stopped for to be ruminated on; there is neither greatness nor operatic tragedy in it. It simply means that the next guy in line must now step up and take his turn. The viewpoint Fuller adopts destroys his chances for a larger story (think Private Ryan), but that would lend itself to Greater Meaning, and Fuller's not sure there is any. That's why the film follows the men as they, like the war itself, simply chug along from place to place, day to day, fight to fight, until pen is put to paper and the war is declared over. It's then that Killing becomes Murder.
Fuller himself fought in WWII, and it is those experiences that he long sought to both write about and bring to the screen (his novelization was released concurrently with the film), resulting in The Big Red One. This is a movie that could have only been made by someone who was there—not because it's so accurate about the "true nature of war" (which I am not fit to comment on), but because it's laced with so many small, personal touches. We see the soldiers putting condoms on the barrels of their guns to keep water out, not for a history lesson and not because it looks funny, but because that's what Fuller remembers doing. Many of the stories themselves (the film is essentially broken down into small segments, each telling its own story) seem to stem from first-person memory, and because of it we find ourselves drawn in further than we are with the traditional war film. The moments and sequences that take place in between the fighting, where the men are just hanging out with one another, are what breathe such life into the movie—they give it its soul.
Fuller is represented on screen by Robert Carradine as the writer/director's cigar-chomping alter-ego, Pvt. Zab, who delivers the film's narration both to keep us oriented and to allow us in to what runs through the minds of young men asked to kill and die in the name of something they might not understand (and not only because they are so young; even the seasoned Lee Marvin—more of a natural resource than an actor here—still struggles to comprehend the meaning of it all). While I'll admit that Carradine is somewhat unconvincing as a cigar-chomper, he perfectly nails the laconic humor of Fuller's voice; the movie is often darkly comic, but it has to be—the characters are forced to stand outside of Death, to make a joke of it (one running gag involves the turnover rate of the replacements to the First Squad, who are killed with alarming frequency: "They were just dead men with temporary use of their arms and legs.") as yet another tool for survival. Nothing in The Big Red One has been romanticized, but that doesn't limit the film from achieving a typically Fuller-esque sense of heightened reality—as personal as the movie is, it's cinematic as all hell. One needs look no further than the metaphoric opening shots of an out-of-control horse for an example of the movies visual poetry. Or, examine the wristwatch wrapped around the lifeless arm of a soldier in the bloody surf of D-Day: death happens, but time always moves forward.
Even the larger scenes—specifically the combat sequences—find a kind of intimacy that's rare for a war film (some may find this to be a shortcoming; I found it refreshing). Sure, Fuller's limitations are apparent: shots are doubled up, tanks reused again and again, the camera turned around to get a new angle on the extras and make it look like there are more of them—it's a small movie passing itself off as a Big One. But, then, Fuller hasn't much eye for or interest in Epic; that's why the combat sequences take place in close-up (we don't get the sweeping overview shots that have become such a cliché of war films), and why the action plays itself not with stunts and special effects, but on the men's faces. This is not the experience of War itself, only the experiences of five men who find themselves fighting within it. Few films I've seen have dealt with war on such a personal level (Oliver Stone's Platoon comes to mind, though even that inserted the Berenger/Dafoe battle-for-Charlie-Sheen's soul story to give it greater significance), and it is in this way that it finds its greatness.
That's not to say that the The Big Red One doesn't occasionally reach too far, only to fall short; like most of Fuller's films, it is (at times) glorious in its messiness. The best example of this is the way in which the film cross-cuts the men of the First with their German counterpart, a sergeant named Schroeder (Sigfried Rauch, The Eagle Has Landed), who is essentially experiencing the same things they are on the opposite end of the battlefield. Even this miscalculation has a way of redeeming itself; while I would argue that the inclusion is one of the movie's few stumbles (a large number of these scenes have found their way back into The Reconstruction)—they underline Fuller's themes a bit too obviously and detract from the intensely first-person accounting of the war—I have to admire his efforts to even consider the Other Side. I also have to note that this is one of the few Combat Films I've seen to even acknowledge the Holocaust in the context of the war; when, near the movie's end, the men come across the skeletons of murdered Jews (and a young boy still living), it sheds new light on what we're fighting for, and what it means to survive.
Warner Bros. has delivered The Big Red One: The Reconstruction in a marvelous two-disc set loaded with some top-notch supplemental material. The new cut of the film (which is not exactly a "director's cut," as Schickel is quick to point out on his commentary track, but is rather a cut intended to remain faithful to what it is believed the late director would have wanted) runs 162 minutes, adding over forty minutes of new footage to the original film; while it certainly contributes even more to the already-episodic nature of the film, the inclusion of the new material is invaluable to the movie's success. Not only does it flesh out more of the characters and enrich the detail of their experiences, but also (like the Extended Editions of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy) allows the movie to breathe. It allows for a film that once promised to be great to finally achieve Greatness. Sad, then, that Fuller is no longer around to be able to see it.
The movie is presented in a gorgeously restored widescreen transfer, in an aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and enhanced for 16x9 playback. The transfer is excellent, showing only occasional grain but typically bright and beautiful; this is even more impressive when you realize (and you will after sifting through the bonus material) just how much work Schickel and his crew went through to painstakingly restore footage and making sure that its quality matched the existing print of the film. This was clearly a labor of love for everyone involved, and it's paid off. There is also a newly amped-up Dolby digital 5.1 audio track; though purists may be disappointed, the inventive separation effects (lots of bullets whizzing from channel to channel) and strong dimensionality should go a long way towards changing their minds.
Also included on the first disc is a feature-length commentary by film critic/"Reconstruction" producer Richard Schickel. While his talk can be rather dry at times, it also provides an excellent overview into what went into bringing this new version of the film to fruition, pointing out what footage has been added back in and attempting to explain both why that choice was made (again, everyone had to take their best guess without Fuller around the guide the way) and what it adds to the finished film. He also watches the film with a critic's eye, interpreting what he believes the themes of the film to be and how Fuller achieves them. Like several of his commentaries for other discs (both the special editions of Unforgiven and Once Upon a Time in America come to mind), Schickel has the occasional tendency to be a bit too forthright in his dissection of the film—not much is left for the viewer to piece together—but the track is still very good, striking the right balance between technicality and analysis.
The bulk of the second disc is comprised of two terrific documentaries. The first, The Real Glory: Reconstructing The Big Red One, gets in-depth about the process of re-cutting and re-storing the film with what tools Schickel and Co. had at their disposal. It also serves as a nice retrospective piece, gathering the surviving cast members (all of the "Four Horsemen," save for the late Lee Marvin, are present) to talk about their experiences in making the film and what it was like to work with Fuller (who apparently used to direct scenes with a live gun in each hand). The second piece, The Men Who Made the Movies: Sam Fuller is a profile of the director and his work. Both documentaries contain some great archival footage of Fuller both in his heyday and nearer to the end of his life (he passed away in 1997), as well pay tribute to an often-overlooked genius auteur and a true American original. Also included is an old War Department film about the squad portrayed in the movie, some alternate scenes, and a promotional gallery consisting of original TV and radio spots, production stills, a promo reel, and trailers for both the films original 1980 theatrical release and the 2004 "Reconstruction."
2005 may only be half over, but The Big Red One: The Reconstruction already finds itself on my short list of the year's best discs. It not only (at long last) gives a great film its due, but restores one's faith in the possibilities of the format; so often is the potential of DVD wasted that sets like this remind us of why it has become such a priceless institution for film lovers. It might have been enough for the studio to simply release the full-length version of the film—I, for one, would have been grateful just for that much. That they have seen to it to include such a wealth of high-quality extras as well reaffirms their position, acquired only within the past couple of years, as one of the best studios putting out DVDs today.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Reconstruction Producer Richard Schickel
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