In Hollywood, personal films can often become bloated vanity projects. With Samuel Fuller’s semi-autobiographical WWII memoir, The Big Red One, there is nothing vain or glorious about the events portrayed therein. Fuller’s words at the beginning baldly state “This is fictional life, based on factual death.”
The Big Red One tells the story of a grizzled sergeant, a WWI veteran, and his wetnoses, or “The Four Horsemen (of the apocalypse)”. It details their campaigns across North Africa, Italy, France, Belgium, Germany and Czechoslovakia, in an alternately picaresque, surreal and horrific manner. Fuller was 30 when he joined up, a succesful newspaper man and just published author of The Dark Page, a pulp mystery. he could have been a war correspondent, but chose to serve in a rifle company in the 1st Infantry Division, the “Big Red One”. He had a writers nose for a story, and he certainly got plenty of material at the sharp end. Like the unit in his screenplay, his first taste of action was hitting the Algerian beach head as part of Operation Torch against Vichy French troops. He recalled in his book The Third Face:
“I found myself eyeball to eyeball with my first vision of the horror of war. One of our guys was hit with a mortar charge and blown apart, his head severed from his body. It landed near me. I had a close up view of a shocked face, his bulging eyes full of fear and surprise. I’d seen a lot of corpses in the City morgues, so I didn’t turn away. I stared, hypnotised by the soldier’s head, almost forgetting where I was. The shell bursts snapped me out of it. To this day, the first face of death is imprinted on me like a fossil, never to fade away.” (thanks to The Projection Booth podcast for drawing my attention to this extract)
Fuller had no time for Hollywood “phoney heroics”. Warner Brothers head Daryl F. Zanuck offered him a lot of big war films to direct – Fuller turned down The Longest Day and Patton, amongst others. He was offered money to do The Big Red One if he would cast John Wayne as the Sergeant. Although he admired Wayne, he didn’t feel he was right for it, and waited. Although he wrote the script in 1958, it would not be until 1979 when he got to film it they way he wanted, with Lorimar Productions, for a shoestring budget of $4 million. He shot on location in Big Bear National Park in America for snowy scenes, around John Boorman’s castle in Co. Meath, Ireland, and mostly Israel for the African and Sicily sections. His original cut of around four hours was chopped to under two by the studio, with scant regard for logic or cohesion, leaving it a disjointed curio. Richard Schickel and Brian Jamieson of Warner Brothers, who acquired the rights after Lorimar went bankrupt, later began a restoration process after a long campaign by Fuller’s widow Crista. On a budget of $1/2 million, they tracked down 90 minutes of footage, 50 minutes of which made it back into the cut, based on Fuller’s notes, to create a stronger, more confident narrative.
Lee Marvin was always in line to play the sergeant, a gruff professional with a dry sense of humour buried somewhere deep. Like Fuller, Marvin was a war veteran, a marine in the Pacific theatre. “Fuller and Marvin communicated in a shorthand which none of us understood,” Robert Carradine recalled. “Sometimes Lee would bum a cigar from Sam. They were comrades in arms. They fought the same war. They could say more with a look than the rest of us could say in a whole conversation.” He told Roger Ebert The Dirty Dozen was “a dummy money-maker”. The Big Red One was something special to him too, a chance to tell it right.
There is no mawkishness, no prescient insight to strategic overview, like Saving Private Ryan’s ridiculous discussion between Tom hanks and Ted Danson about Monty’s race to break out first from Normandy. There’s just you, and the men beside you. In the Reconstruction, we first find the Sergeant lost on the deserted battlefield of WWI (shot in stark black and white). A shell shocked horse nearly tramples him, before a german soldier stumbles across him. The Sergeant stabs him, only later realising the man was trying to surrender, four hours after the armistice. The guilt haunts him deep down. In his WWII squad, Griff, the marksman, is unable to shoot a man so close “you could kiss him on both cheeks“. Later, framed by a brick arch, he tells the Sergeant “I can’t murder anybody.” “We don’t murder, we kill,” the Sergeant rationalises to himself as much as Griff. The slightest downturn in his eyes shows he doesn’t swallow his own lie. Toward the end of the film, Griff is again framed by a brick arch, this time filmed from the point of view of a concentration camp guard hiding in one of the ovens used to dispose of the prisoners. Griff raises his rifle and pumps round after round into him and the camera POV. The Sergeant hands him a fresh clip and murmurs “You got him.” No shirt tearing, no impassioned speeches – can a war crime warrant murder? Fuller refuses to cut away from Griff – he wants the audience to feel the sense of disquiet.
The Four Horsemen each crudely reflect aspects of Fuller’s personality. They are: Zab (Robert Carradine) the cigar chomping, “Hemingway of the Bronx” – his “The Dark Deadline” is based on Fuller’s first book; Griff (Mark Hamill) conscience stricken marksman and cartoonist; Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco) wise ass Sicilian; and Johnson (Kelly Ward) corn bred all American, innocent and haemmoroid plagued, a rubber ring always near to hand. Peppered throughout their travels are various “replacements” who come and go. As the film progresses, Zab narrates: “By now we had come to see our replacements as dead men who temporarily had the use of their arms and legs.” Farcical humour and horniness sit side by side with the grim realities of war, often in the same scene. The Sergeant consoles a man who has just been injured in the groin by a mine. “It’s just one of your balls, Smitty. You can live without it (winks to the others). That’s why they gave you two!” To add insult to injury he casually flips it over his shoulder.
At one point the Sergeant, Griff and Johnston deliver a baby inside a tank, the ammo belts used as stirrups., condoms on their fingers as makeshift gloves. Johnson urges the mother to “pousser”, making it sound like a certain part of her anatomy he can’t help staring at. “Sarge, ” he laughs, “I’m gettin’ horny!” Dug in somewhere for the night, the men listen to the sultry tones of Axis Sally urging them to quit. Zab tells Johnson, rolling against him, “That’s not my gun.”
One of the funniest scenes is when the squad discuss what to do at a party they are going to throw with the proceeds from Zab’s book rights. Johnson (again, he’s the horniest!) wants a girl with a big ass that he can hold against a frozen window. Why? The guys are baffled. “To thaw it out,” he grins.
There is grim humour too. Zab explains in narration that to smoke out a sniper “you send a guy out into the open to see if they get shot. They thought that one up at West point.” When a sniper is discovered to be a Hitler Youth, the guys are ready to follow general orders and kill him. The Sergeant shames them all into refusing to do so, before putting the boy over his knee and spanking him until he cries for his Pappi. He’s just a boy, for all the poison poured into him by the state.
The limited budget and production values, such as Sherman tanks redressed as Panzers, also led to the film being unfairly dismissed until the Reconstruction brought back a sense of cohesion and tight focus within the wider action. For instance, the Normandy Beach landing may not have the visceral scale of Saving Private Ryan’s Omaha assault, but it economically intersperses various close ups, including the Sergeant sending man after man out to blow a gap in the wire with the bangalore torpedo. When Griff takes his turn and wavers, pinned down by enemy fire, the Sergeant snipes at him also. They stare at each other grimly, before Griff pushes on. They are just cogs in the machine. Intercut with this is a brilliant shot of a dead man’s watch lying in the bloody surf, watch hands sweeping on relentlessly, underscoring the gruelling nature of the assault. Zab is sent to tell a superior their section is open. He falls upon a dead man, guts hanging out, and relieves him of his helmet and cigar.
The restored, surreal episode where the G.I’s fight Germans in a convent used as a mental hospital echoes Fuller’s earlier brilliant expose, Shock Corridor. A patient lifts a machine gun and sprays away, a manic grin on his face. “Now I am sane!” When French Colonial troops cut the ears from dead foes, it evokes the gruesome habits of certain combatants in Vietnam, the war that films were more preoccupied with at the time of The Big Red one’s original release. Fuller knew that war is war. Johnson is confused by a war memorial already up (actually commemorating WWI): “But the names are the same!” “They always are,” the Sergeant wearily replies.
The only room for sympathy is for the poor children caught in the crossfire. After a battle in a village, the Sergeant retrieves his helmet, gaily garlanded with flowers by a little girl. “The Krauts are gonna spot that garden a mile away.” “I like the smell.” When they liberate a death camp, the Sergeant stoically carries a frail boy on his shoulders along a peaceful river bank until the life ebbs out of his emaciated body.
Like Saving Private Ryan, the film that possibly contributed to a renewed interest in The Big Red one, it has redemptive book ends. In a tragic irony, the Sergeant repeats his error from the start of the film, stabbing his German counterpart Schroeder in the act of surrendering. Was he thinking of the dead boy, the ovens? When the squad advise him Germany has already surrendered and they discover the man is still breathing, the Sergeant fights to save his life. Zab observes they had more in common with him than all the replacements that died along the way. Amidst all the bizarre, crazy cruelty they have encountered, “the real glory of war is surviving.”
Originally posted 2012-03-29 15:24:11. Republished by Blog Post Promoter