Sometimes lost masterpieces are better off lost. That way, they can remain what legend insists they were.
Alas, the lost version of Samuel Fuller's "The Big Red One" of 1980 has been found -- reassembled, actually, by the distinguished film critic Richard Schickel -- and it's a lot less than legendary. It isn't even very good.
Lee Marvin, center, plays a sergeant who's almost like a god to his men in "The Big Red One."
Fuller, originally a hard-boiled newspaperman, made it to Hollywood in the late '30s as a writer and returned after World War II service in the infantry. By the early '50s he was a reliable B-picture director churning out low-budget features to fill the underside of the double bills that were standard in the movie exhibition business. Except his B pictures were frequently better than the A pictures they accompanied into the Bijoux. His masterpiece is "Pickup on South Street" (1953) and his typical film -- he made a few dogs -- was tough, urgent and compelling.
At the age of 8, in 1954, I saw "Hell and High Water," in which sub skipper Richard Widmark stops an evil commie plan to nuke Tokyo, and have never forgotten it for the rigor of the narrative and the freshness of the images. Other great ones include two Korean War pictures, "The Steel Helmet" and "Fixed Bayonets"; a brutal caper set in Tokyo called "House of Bamboo"; and the superb war picture of 1962, "Merrill's Marauders."
In fact, in every respect "Merrill's Marauders" is superior to "The Big Red One," which was Fuller's "dream picture," the one he desperately wanted to make all through his career and finally realized toward the end, when his reputation had been resurrected by smart young directors and smart young movie critics. But the movie was taken from him, and the 1980 version has long been regarded as a butchered version by an insensitive studio, like Peckinpah's "Major Dundee" or Welles's "The Magnificent Ambersons."
The superior "Marauders" was about a unit literally destroyed by war, a regiment that operated behind enemy lines in Burma and was tasked with excruciating missions that it accomplished until it just fell apart. Fuller got everything he knew about war into it: the exhilaration of combat, the ordeal of campaigning, the boredom, the fear, the responsibilities of command, the passion of friendships at the squad level.
By contrast, the more ambitious "Big Red One," though 45 minutes longer than the original release, still feels thinner, less complex, more mythic and far less compelling; it never gets us to connect with its soldiers, and the new footage amplifies rather than reduces that problem. Fuller begins with a sergeant -- he liked sergeants: In his two Korea pictures Gene Evans played heroic sergeants -- who is so iconic he is apparently nameless (he is credited as "Sgt. Possum," but I never heard him addressed by any name in the movie). The actor, at the height of his powers, was Lee Marvin, who plays a kind of Sgt. Rock figure: all-knowing, all-seeing, a god to his men. Unfortunately he's never a human being, merely a distant deity.
We meet him in the last days of World War I, where he brutally knifes a German -- and then we learn the war was technically over at the time of the death. You can tell Marvin is haunted by this development; his left iris dilates one-eighth of an inch and his tongue flicks across his lips for .128 of a second.
Come World War II, he's the same man: an ageless sergeant (when of course many experienced NCOs from prewar days became officers in World War II), still nameless. Now he's running an infantry squad headed for North Africa in '42, and the movie will stay with this squad all the way through the war, as it jumps from North Africa to Sicily to Normandy to Belgium to Czechoslovakia, tracing the path the young Fuller tracked during the war as a member of the 1st Infantry Division, known as the Big Red One.
The squad immediately distills itself into four young men, played by four of the callowest actors in Hollywood at the time: Mark Hamill, hot from "Star Wars," Robert Carradine, Bobby Di Cicco and Kelly Ward; the last two seem to have disappeared without a trace. The movie pretty much stays with these five men -- Sarge and his four beardless warriors -- throughout, and so it feels weirdly claustrophobic: no officers, no other squad members, no big picture, no sense of war as highly organized social enterprise. It's just these five men against a kind of dreamy, featureless landscape, encountering a variety of surrealistic experiences.
To be fair, although billed as an "epic," the movie was severely undercut by budget restraints. This is particularly evident in its evocation of the Normandy invasion, in which the 1st Infantry Division was a heroic participant. In Fuller's Normandy-on-$5-a-day version, the division is reduced to a handful of soldiers squirming on a beach, the invasion fleet is but a single ship bobbing just behind the surf, and once again our four heroes, under the shrewd leadership of their immortal Sarge, save the day.
The explosions are convincing, and for a few seconds we feel the terror of men caught on a beach with water behind and artillery in front. But Fuller isn't really interested in combat. In "Merrill's Marauders" he thought a lot about staging action in realistic ways and the sequences are brilliant. By this time in his career, the setups are static, the same patterns are repeated over and over and it's never engaging. Instead, the Germans are on the left and the Americans are on the right. The Germans shoot and mostly miss; the Americans shoot and mostly hit. Grenades are thrown and the fight is over. We haven't penetrated, we haven't learned anything about the skill of war-fighting or the dangers of combat; we're just looking at endless and tedious re-creations of cliche Hollywood staging.
And over the running time of 2 hours 40 minutes, we learn next to nothing about these men. Hamill and Carradine's characters at least have pulp identifiers: Hamill's is a fear of killing, and Carradine's is a cigar he chomps on (he is held to be the analogue to the cigar-chomping Fuller). The others simply don't register. They're never afraid and they're never tired (as were the men in "Merrill's Marauders") and their interaction is uncompelling: It's just straight idealized friendship. This is a disappointment, because in his tough little B pics, Fuller specialized in exposing the social and psychological dynamic in small batches of men; one, "The Crimson Kimono," which features two cops rooming together, is built on that kind of twisted relationship.
Then there's a subplot in which a German sergeant keeps turning up and exchanging shots with them over the course of the many years and the many theaters. But the figure, played by Siegfried Rauch, is again uncompelling; we never see into him as we saw into, as an example, Marlon Brando's Christian Diestl (a German lieutenant) in "The Young Lions." The resolution, completely unconvincing, sees Rauch's character and Marvin's character reenacting the knife encounter that began the film.
What seems to have motivated Fuller more than narrative or scope or character is image. He must have seen things so strange, so ghastly, so unbelievable during the war that he somehow wanted them recorded before his time was over. So the movie is full of arresting, if static, visions of the sort that only a war could conjure. A stone cross in drifting smoke on a blasted battlefield; a German tank assaulted by French horsemen; the hideous strangeness of a liberated concentration camp; Belgian asylum patients wandering unconcerned into a firefight.
They aren't much; but they're all he had.
The Big Red One (160 minutes, at AFI Silver) is rated R for battle gore.