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  Directed by
  Starring
  Specs
  • Widescreen 1.85:1
  • 16:9 Enhanced
  • Dual Layer ( )
  Languages
  • English: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • Italian: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • Commentary - English: Dolby Digital Stereo
  Subtitles
    English, Italian, Arabic, English - Hearing Impaired, Italian - Hearing Impaired, Turkish, Romanian
  Extras
  • 18 Additional footage
  • Teaser trailer
  • Audio commentary
  • 4 Discography
  • Short film

The Big Red One - The Reconstruction

/Warner Home Video . R4 . COLOR . 156 mins . M15+ . PAL

  Feature
Contract

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.

POSTSCRIPT 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.

  Video
Contract

The anamorphic transfer is excellent, with no visible shift in quality between scenes from the original cut, and restored material. It has a gritty, grainy appearance which is right at home with the material. Great restoration.

  Audio
Contract

The 5.1 Surround track is tight and focused, with most emphasis across the centre-stage. Dialogue is crisp, and sound effects are not unnaturally boosted -- this is an intimate war, not a sound-blaster epic.

  Extras
Contract

The features kick off with an optional audio commentary by Richard Shickall, which has interesting material about both the history of the movie and its reconstruction -- I found it a tad boring and heavy going after the first 30 minutes, but that's true of many audio commentaries.

Then, on the second disc in my review set (probably the second layer on the single-disc retail version), we have first up a 47-minute documentary, 'The Real Glory: Reconstructing The Big Red One', which traces the reconstruction just in case you didn't hear enough in the audio commentary. It's a bit dull, and very repetitive if you first watched the movie.

Next up is the main extra feature, another documentary, 'The Men who Made the Movies: Samuel Fuller. This film, dating from 2002, runs for 55 minutes, is laden with interviews with Fuller, and has excellent representative clips from movies across his entire career, from 'B'-Grade movie maestro specialising in cheap sudden violence and death, to respected 'A'-Grade movie maestro specialising in sudden violence and death. Cineastes will enjoy this one; it's a model of how such short features should be made.

There's a 30-minute Promotional Reel narrated by Lee Marvin, which was discovered only in 1999 and used as a basis for the reconstruction -- fullscreen, in excellent quality. And to see a glimpse of the real thing, we have a 12-minute 1946 black-and-white US Government movie, The Fighting First which sketches the history of the infantry division, with particular focus on its involvement in the Second World War.

An Anatomy of a Scene featurette focuses on a couple of key scenes, showing us versions before and after reconstruction. This one is excruciatingly boring -- the 'birth of a baby in a tank' sequence was over-long in the movie. To have to watch it all again in this featurette is torture.

There are some 18 alternate scenes of very varying length and interest - by now I'd seen enough of most aspects of The Big Red One. Still, you have to admit we're getting maximum material....

The Stills Gallery is the usual boring procession of too-small production shots. And there's a widescreen non-anamorphic theatrical trailer for the reconstructed version, presented in reasonable quality. And that's it -- a pretty hefty swag.

  Overall  
Contract

This is an historic film, restored pretty closely to director Samuel Fuller's original intentions.

I wouldn't call it a great movie by any means, but there's lots of interest here in both the movie (especially in Lee Marvin's great performance as The Sergeant) and in the excellent documentary on the life and career of its director.


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      And I quote...
    "The US First Infantry once again saves the world for truth, justice and the American way. "
    - Anthony Clarke
      Review Equipment
    • DVD Player:
          Pioneer DVD 655A
    • TV:
          Loewe Profil Plus 3272 68cm
    • Receiver:
          Denon AVR-3801
    • Speakers:
          Neat Acoustics PETITE
    • Centre Speaker:
          Neat Acoustics PETITE
    • Surrounds:
          Celestian (50W)
    • Subwoofer:
          B&W ASW-500
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