An intimate and affecting mosaic of vignettes about men in combat, Sam Fuller's "The Big Red One" is a new classic in a genre that has gone out of fashion.
A significant portion of the contemporary film public may regard the combat melodrama as an evil indulgence in the aftermath of Vietnam. Even if stirred by Fuller's movie, which is set during World War II and seems both authentically felt and curiously reflective -- the recollections of a former soldier who shows only the faintest traces of jingoism or hostility in the act of recreating some of his experiences many people might be loath to admit that they responded favorably to it.
Nevertheless, it's a movie that accumulates emotional power as the episodes unfold, begin to add up and form recurring patterns. The approach couldn't be more methodical or straightforward. A prologue shot on eerily tinted stock introduces Lee Marvin as a solitary American soldier in a ravaged, ominous landscape on the day that the armistice was signed ending World War I. It's apparent that Marvin is destined to link us to the later war, perhaps on this same terrain and perhaps in a similar sequence of events. His character even accounts for the distinctive insignia of the First Infantry Division -- the red shoulder patch with the numeral "1" that accounts for the nickname "The Big Red One."
The expectations are verified. After that strange, haunting prologue, Marvin returns as a sergeant in the World War II episodes, which follow him and four young riflemen serving in his squad -- Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine, Bobby Di Cicco and Kelly Ward -- from the landings in North Africa in 1942 through the liberation of a concentration camp in Czechoslavakia on V-E Day.
When events bring these GIs to Normandy, Marvin does indeed retrace his steps across familiar ravaged ground. Ultimately, the entire structure is resolved with a recurrence that permits him an unexpected second chance, the opportunity to alter a sequence of events in which an appalling pattern has repeated itself.
Structurally and temperamentally, "The Big Red One" recalls William Wellman's "The Story of G.I. Joe," probably the most respected of the fictional combat films that emerged from Hollywood during World War II. The aim is similar: to create a compact, small-scale impression of combat that carries epic implications without attempting to depict The Big Picture.
Fuller's strength lies in the concrete weirdness of most of the episodes. In every new patrol on every new battlefield, events take a peculiar, incongruous, spooky course. You never doubt that Fuller based these sequences on things that happened to him and fellow infantrymen. The twists seem too bizarre and specific to be fabricated.
For example, in Sicily the squad -- fearing it will soon be overrun -- takes refuge in a cave. An unexpected American barrage puts the Germans to rout, and suddenly the squad is confronted with retreating enemy soldiers seeking to hide in the same shelter, which becomes a deathtrap for the latecomers.
Also in Sicily, Marvin strikes a macabre bargain with a boy seeking a proper burial for his mother, whose corpse is rapidly decomposing in the heat. In Normandy the squad averts a German ambush and ends up delivering a French-woman's baby minutes later inside a tank, improvising frantically in an effort to create a makeshift, hygenic "operating room."
In the final stunning episode at the concentration camp, Hamill -- the only young soldier whose character is adequately differentiated over the long haul -- goes berserk in an oddly controlled way when he encounters an SS man hidden in one of the crematoriums. Marvin befriends a gaunt, doomed child found among the survivors, and they play out a brief pantomime idyll that is emotionally wrenching. The scene may persuade you that Marvin is one of our great silent screen actors.
Although Fuller never quite gets his young cast members sorted out (Carradine and Di Cicco seem interchangeable), Marvin has a physical authority that is overwhelming. He embodies the mythic heroic dignity and gravity of Fuller's battle-hardened sarge more eloquently than any other performer one could imagine. Marvin seems a leaner, stronger camera subject than ever before; his presence is a beautifully distilled and powerful as the strongest isolated images or sequences in the movie itself. Here is a masculine essence that can confer nobility on the cliches and conventions of action movies.
The film is aslo immeasurably enhanced by the stark, vivid composition of Israeli cinematographer Adam Greenberg (the production was shot almost entirely on location in Israel, on a relatively modest budget of $6 million) and the rich, haunting score of Dana Kaproff. Both these names are new to me. I hope they keep coming back to haunt me.
Although many film nuts nurture an affection for that crusty, inimitable old action movie campaigner Sam Fuller, it remains to be seen if this surprisingly gratifying grace note to his eccentric career will rally a mass audience right away. "The Big Red One" never seems a glorification of war, but neither is it a condemnation, and that failure to moralize may jeopardize the movie with a younger generation. Fuller's graphic, vivid filmmaking style attains a serenity that it never had before. I think it's because this old soldier and pulp film artist has truly distilled the awesome mystery, horror and humanity of the war as he knew it.