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The Big Red One

(Samuel Fuller, USA, 1980/2004)


 


If there is one moment in the new version of Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One that I am likely to remember and treasure above all others, it is a fleeting insert in a scene which is already justly famous among film buffs.

A new recruit to the World War II team known as the Big Red One is immediately branded a naïve outsider. Over-eager to please, he goes to fetch some water and, off-screen, steps on a mine.

The Sergeant (Lee Marvin) races over and assures him that the explosion was only designed to castrate him. As this no-nonsense father-figure unceremoniously throws one severed testicle away, the boy gropes at his bloody groin and – here is the part unseen in 1980 – exclaims ecstatically: "I've still got my cock!" We will never see this minor character again, but his cry is indelible.

Is this macho talk? Absolutely not. Fuller's vision of war – the film is broadly faithful to his real-life experiences – has nothing heroic or triumphant about it. The politics that puts these men into the field is unfathomable to them, and what goes on in the heat of battle is unendingly absurd, surreal, insane.

In a story that is constantly on the brink of being overwhelmed by tragedy – it begins with a wasteful murder committed after World War I has officially ended, repeatedly shows the deaths of innocent civilians and children, and culminates in the revelation of a Nazi death camp (and how many American WWII movies, yesterday or today, even touch on that subject?) – The Big Red One celebrates the life-force wherever and however it survives.

It is not a perfect film – and it is not quite in the class of Fuller's greatest, like Pickup on South Street (1953) or Shock Corridor (1963) – but its best scenes are all at once astonishing, confronting, hilarious and heartbreaking. The central soldiers – Griff (Mark Hamill), Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco) and Fuller's stand-in Zab (Robert Carradine) – make less of an impression than the extraordinary set-piece events that sweep them up. Marvin's performance, however, is a classic of understatement.

This reconstruction, supervised by Time reviewer Richard Schickel, has been described by Jonathan Rosenbaum as an augmented version of the 1980 cut rather than a complete restoration of Fuller's original intentions, and I tend to agree with that. (Let us leave aside the practical and conceptual difficulties of reconstructing a workprint by Fuller – not a finished film – that no longer exists.) Schickel has (controversially) retained two elements Fuller did not want: a pointless voice-over narration (scripted by Jim McBride), and titles that inform us which country we are in at every stage of the plot (where systematic disorientation was meant to the point). And, as the materials provided on the DVD make clear, Schickel was making his own aesthetic decisions (perhaps in the 'spirit' of Fuller – or this critic's construal of that spirit) about what would 'work' in a reconstructed version destined for commercial exploitation, and hence some material is still excluded.

But the fifty extra minutes, including many striking new scenes and crucial additions to existing scenes, contain great riches – and, particularly, a far keener emphasis on sexual content and gruesome violence.

No matter what version we see it in, The Big Red One is a picaresque, episodic film. Fuller clearly grappled with this difficult narrative form – it could have ended up as a feature film in several possible formats, or a television mini-series – and decided on a very modern approach. He made his testament movie into a vivid collage, a constant juxtaposition of comic and dramatic moods.

What is much clearer in this almost three-hour version is the way in which Fuller also structured it as a vast suite of themes and variations – around themes such as children, and the American/German cultural comparison.

It is easy to see why a cautious Hollywood studio in 1980 found Fuller's assembled material repetitious and unwieldy. But the audience of 2005, primed on more experimental visions of war like Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line (1998), is at last ready for The Big Red One in all its wild, chaotic, passionate splendour. The release of this reconstructed version is a cultural event of major significance.

© Adrian Martin April 2005


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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