In honor of Veteran's Day, this will be the first in a series of reviews of different war movies. We kick off with Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One (1980), based on his own experience in the army's first infantry division in World War II. For clarification, I'm discussing the reconstructed version, which is 158 minutes long (the theatrical version is 113 minutes, and I haven't seen it).
There's no real overarching plot. We follow a squad of G.I.s from the 1942 landings in North Africa to the campaigns in Sicily and Normandy through the drive across Europe and finally the liberation of a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia at the end of the war. The central character is the sergeant whose name we never learn (Lee Marvin), and he commands a faithful foursome: Zab (Robert Carradine), Griff (Mark Hamill), Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco), and Johnson (Kelly Ward). No one else survives long.
So what separates this from being a feature length version of the TV show Combat? For starters, Lee Marvin. He's always in action. I don't mean running around and shooting all the time, but nothing about the performance suggests he is merely playing sergeant. All the little details ring true. To see Marvin in the role is to be entirely sold on the idea this is a man who leads others in combat (the fact Marvin was a marine in the South Pacific adds to the authenticity).
The other distinction of the movie is how much variety in tone Fuller manages to include. Many scenes display the camaraderie of the unit, like when they pick off German troops one at a time while hiding in a cave. Others are rather sweet. After liberating a Sicilian village and celebrating with the villagers, the squad moves out but not before Marvin accepts a flower decoration on his helmet from a little girl. Still, others are haunting and dark, particularly the liberation of the death camp. Marvin finds a young boy still alive and shares his rations with him. Outside, he lets the kid ride on his shoulders, but after a while, the boy slumps dead across his neck. As Zab narrates, the sergeant carries him for 20 minutes before having the heart to take him down.
The plot can be described as episodic, but really, it feels more like a collection of a soldier's memories and the different emotions he feels: the fear, the anger, the joy, the despair, the friendship, the elation, the relief, the humor, and more. Fuller has no real message or agenda to push. The movie's not really pro or anti-war. It's just how Fuller remembers it.
Fuller also captures the weirdness and absurdity of war. By absurdity, I don't mean Dr. Strangelove-esque satire showing the futility of war; I mean the ridiculous stuff that goes on: the soldier who wades ashore with a roll of toilet held above his head, the German doctor that hits on a captured Marvin, delivering a Frenchwoman's baby inside a tank, and others. Some people find these aspects of the film campy or dated, but really, a lot of things when you think about them are pretty silly, even in a war.
Fuller's working on a low budget for such a scaled war movie, but it hardly shows. It's impressive. The settings look like the countries they're set in, and the battle scenes, though limited in scope, pack a punch in energy and intensity. Even though we're focused on one small squad, it feels like they're part of a much larger campaign. Even though Marvin is the standout, the others do fine (hard to believe there's a good film outside of Star Wars with Mark Hamill in it).
The Big Red One is not often mentioned in lists of the greatest war movies, but it should be. Fuller covers a lot of ground and depicts the life of a first division infantryman in World War II. You won't find John Wayne theatrics, but then again, you shouldn't.