THE BIG RED ONE -- AMC Carrolton, Arlington, K-B MacArthur, Outer Circle 1, Roth's Mt. Veron, Roth's Randolph and Roth's Tysons Corner.
It was a fifth-grade school teacher in the 1950s who first noticed that World War I had merged into World War II. Pupils were having a hard time understanding that there had been Time Out between the two. And as much of a shock as the view was to adults who's participated in one or both of the wars, or who perhaps knew of a few intervening events, the children were actually taking the historical view. After all, the Hundred Years' War had some long rest periods, too.
Nevertheless, the way the two wars are put together in "The Big Red One" smacks more of the child's perspective than the historian's. The same territory being taken over and over, the same mistakes being made -- it gets hard to remember who did what, let alone why.
No doubt in summary form, when the idea was suggested as a movie, these paralles came off as being heavily ironic. The effect of showing the same American sergeant having the same experience and the same conversations in the second war as he had in the first -- in fact, the same conversations, about the difference between wartime killing and peacetime murder, that the Germans are shown having at the same time -- ought to be to show that the essence of war remains the same.
But as Lee Marvin slogs along from one war and one battle to the next, acting the same, looking the same and encountering the same enemies, one cannot help but notice that the sergeant, never mind the world, doesn't seem to have learned anything. And that his experience doesn't teach anything, either, except that any repetitive activity can be boring if you keep it up long enough, even shooting at and being shot.
The title refers, of course, to the 1st Infantry Division, which consists, for the movie, of the one sergeant and four young men who go on a kind of Cook's tour of the European theater -- North africa, Sicily, Omaha, Belgium, Germany, Czechoslavakis -- without getting hurt. Replacements come and go, but they remain the same.
Little biographical information or personality difference are provide for the four young soldiers. One, played by Mark Hamill, his Luke Skywalker blue eyes still representing purity of soul, resists killing people, but whether he is a coward who learns courage or an idealist who goes nuts is not clear. Another, whom Robert Carradine plays, is becoming a literary hero back home while he goes through his wartime heroics.
Why does the announcement that his mother has sold the manuscript he left back home, to be filmed with Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson, perk up the movie? Not because we are emotionally involved with the boy, but because hearing about Hollywood of the '40s suddenly provides an identifiable time point. Suddenly, instead of all this endless shooting getting nowhere, there is a particular time and a particular place. Although the writer and director, Samuel Fuller, actually served in the 1st Infantry Division, it's clear that movies, not war, are his reality.
He even uses this to teach us to remember the difference between the wars. World War I happened in black-and-white, and World War II happen in color.