Samuel Fuller's Second World War movie The Big Red One was released in 1980, shorn by production company Lorimar of 45 minutes of Fuller's intended material.
The discovery in 1999 of a 30-minute promotional reel for the movie, narrated by its star Lee Marvin, sparked interest in a reconstruction effort. And Warners, who now owned the original Lorimar material, hired filmmaker and critic Richard Schickall to attempt to re-edit the movie and bring it back as closely as possible to Fuller's intententions.
So here it is -- a 156-minute history of America's First Infantry Force's (hence the big red One) involvement in the European War. Our war stretched from 1939 to 1945; this one spans 1942-45. Just as in the First World War, the Yanks came in late. And if you judge the European conflict by this movie, then the Yanks were the only ones fighting (give or take a scene-decorating poster of Churchill, that is).
But then, I guess that was the way it really was for Corporal Sam Fuller and his buddies as they fought their war -- it would have been an insular live-or-die affair, with all focus on themselves, and no view of the broader conflict.
The Big Red One follows the path of an unnamed Sergeant, played effectively by Lee Marvin. He's a survivor of the First World War, and he knows when, and who, to kill, and how to maximise survival of both himself and his men.
As fellow-troops around them die, there develops a cadre of four soldiers (played by Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine, Bobby Di Cicco and Kelly Ward) who somehow manage to cling to life through the most desperate battles. This group stays together through North Africa, through the horrendous D-Day landing at Omaha Beach, across Italy and Europe, and eventually through the liberation of Europe, including discovery of the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps.
Fuller says this is a movie about the survivors -- we accept that this is a lottery. Any of these men may have died. The film (based largely on Fuller's own memories of his war history) is about those who managed somehow to stay alive, but it is punctuated throughout by the abrupt and random dead.
It's almost a great movie. Sadly, the reconstruction has, to me, added back too much. We follow the movie for more than 70 minutes before we start feeling really involved in the story or the characters. And there are too many contrived set-pieces which make some very effective points, but are just too obvious in their construction. And it's hard to empathise with the four soldiers, who seemed linked only by their almost umbilical connection with their sergeant -- they come across as selfish members of a brat-pack. Maybe Fuller is keen to stress the dehumanisation nature of war, but this is just a tad too self-congratulatory.
Lewis Foreman's The Halls of Montezuma is a tougher, tighter and grimmer account of the ordeal of modern warfare, and should be viewed by anyone wanting to claim this as THE great war movie. But there are enough strong points, in particular Lee Marvin's laconic, gauntly realistic portrayal of a professional soldier, to make this worthwhile viewing.
Just tonight, after writing this, I heard this movie described by Margaret Pomerantz on ABC Television as a 'powerful anti-war classic'.
Now, I really like the Margaret-David double-act. But that comment is really off-beam. This movie is not anti-war. It acknowledges that war is cruel and vile in the extreme. But throughout it, Samuel Fuller has his sergeant-hero show that the Second World War was a war that had to be fought, to save the entire world from a horror far worse than war itself.
Sometimes, the Sergeant says, you have to kill. You don't have to enjoy it, but you have to do it. That's not anti-war. It's saying that war is terrible. But one of the great tragedies of the human condition is that sometimes, when confronted by the horror of Nazism or other abominable doctrines, you must go through it. The alternative is worse.