The Big Red One (1980)


Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB.5

USA, 1980. . Screenplay by Samuel Fuller. Cinematography by . Produced by . Music by . Production Design by . Film Editing by .

Samuel Fuller nursed the dream of this project for years, initially planning to make it under Jack L. Warner’s supervision in the early sixties before finally completing it in 1980 with some assistance from longtime fan Peter Bogdanovich. Fuller’s memories of serving in the war, with as a character very obviously based on him (complete with perpetually chomping cigar) make up the picaresque narrative of the Big Red One squad serving under sergeant , crossing battlefields into all manner of insanity solely with the hopes of getting out of the situation in one piece.

They begin in North Africa where they assist in defeating Rommel’s campaign, then go to Sicily and take a German Tiger tank thanks to the information given by a little boy carting his mother’s dead body around the countryside. After a few weeks back in England, the soldiers land on Omaha Beach on D-Day, crossing through France where they help a widow give birth in an enemy tank, then to Belgium where they liberate an insane asylum held by the Germans with the help of a razor-wielding . Their final and most devastating destination puts the capper on their witnessing a world turned upside down, in Czechoslovakia they liberate the Falkenau concentration camp and come into an understanding of the horrors that their enemy has committed.

Fuller never makes light of the film’s subject matter but he doesn’t treat it as sacred either, for him war is not an opportunity for glory or a treatise on inhumanity, the evil we see is banal, the infantrymen are little more than fodder for the political aims of those above them, and even when some of the battle scenes feel a bit too staged for the camera they always feel honest, something about the unemotional manner in which people live or die feels like the true experience of someone who was there.

tries but fails to make much of an impression as the most enigmatic of the four soldiers being focused on, while Carradine and fare much better, but the film is Marvin’s show all the way, showcasing his usual bulldog toughness but allowing him to reveal a great deal of vulnerability underneath a surface that gets more brittle with each devastating turn of fortune.

Forced to release a feature-length version in theatres, Fuller’s project was later restored with 47 minutes added to its 113 minute running time, though most streaming versions will give you the original theatrical cut.

Cannes Film Festival: In Competition


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