Having seen the original version of Sam Fuller's The Big Red One, years ago, on television, I could see glimmers of something far grander, but did not know what it could be, and given the callowness of my youth, even had I known what was missing, I could not have mentally interpolated back what the studio that financed the film, Lorimar, had cut. Fuller was basically a B film auteur, having made his reputation on 1950s and 1960s B war films (The Steel Helmet, Merrill's Marauders), and the famous- or infamous, Shock Corridor, yet The Big Red One, which was a fictionalization of his real World War Two experiences with the First Infantry Division of the U.S. Army, was, even in its bowdlerized version, considered his masterpiece. And it's a good solid war film. However, The Reconstruction version, adding in over forty-seven minutes on this two-disc DVD version, is a truly great war film, and ranks only below Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line and Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now as the greatest war film ever made. I would rank it with Regeneration, Patton, and Full Metal Jacket as the head of the next tier of war films. However, unlike Coppola's expanded Apocalypse Now Redux DVD version, with its questionable reinstatement of some bloated and unnecessary scenes, all of the restored scenes in the restored version of Fuller's film only enhance this film's narrative and characterization.
The tale is straightforward, and told from a GI's perspective, rather than from some omniscient eye in the sky. It is lean, filled with little moments, shorn of much visual poesy, yet, despite that, it is very poetic, albeit in totally different ways than the films of Malick and Coppola, which were self-conscious art films, in the best sense of the word. As in all of Fuller's war films, we know these men from just a few brushstrokes, but they are not stereotypes, like the ridiculously banal grunts in Steven Spielberg's ridiculous schlocksterpiece Saving Private Ryan. The main characters are five Americans and one German. The leader of the Americans is an unnamed sergeant (although he is sometimes called Possum) who starts the film, and ends World War One, killing a surrendering German soldier with his knife, four hours after the Armistice, and the violation of that code of war haunts him ever after. The scene, shot in black and white, and highlighted by a shell-shocked horse's attack on Marvin under a large crucifix, is beautifully wrought, acted, and written, and sets the film's tone about the enduring irrationality and absurdity of war without having to delve into comedy like M*A*S*H or Catch-22 do.
Almost a quarter-century later, the Sarge is on his way to Algeria, to battle Nazi General Rommel's panzers from the Afrika Corps. We are then introduced to his 'Four Horsemen', all privates: the Fuller stand-in, the writer Zab (Robert Carradine), the All-American boy Griff (Mark Hamill- fresh off his initial Star Wars success), Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco), and Johnson (Kelly Ward). Along the way they fight in the desert and the mountains, then are shipped off to Sicily, to liberate the island. Some critics, and many fans on such online forums as IMDB or Amazon, complain about the fact that American tanks are used instead of real German tanks. Of course, this is an absurd plaint since Fuller was making a high-low-budget film, for less than $4 million, shot in Israel and Ireland, mostly, and it's like wondering why he focused on small action scenes and didn't use CGI to add in special effects. As the budget of the film limited what Fuller could do, so did the time in which the film was made. Similar quibbles over the lack of blood and guts, a la The Thin Red Line or Saving Private Ryan, can be done away with for the same reasons. And, in Ryan's case, much of the vaunted 'realism' simply was not. It was just a more gory film, to substitute for the lack of any real story.
Yet, this film is not supposed to be about war, itself, as a subject, but the men who fight those wars. All great films focus on characterization, even if obliquely. It's why a film like Saving Private Ryan fails, and this one succeeds brilliantly. In ending his review of the original film's release in 1980, film critic Roger Ebert wrote:
While this is an expensive epic, he hasn't fallen to the temptations of the epic form. He doesn't give us a lot of phony meaning, as if to justify the scope of the production. There aren't a lot of deep, significant speeches. In the ways that count, The Big Red One is still a B-movie -- hard-boiled, filled with action, held together by male camaraderie, directed with a lean economy of action. It's one of the most expensive B-pictures ever made, and I think that helps it fit the subject. A war movies are about War, but B war movies are about soldiers.
In many ways, Ebert is correct, at least about the original film. But, in the restored version we do get some speechifying, especially by the lone main German character, Sergeant Schroeder (Siegfried Rauch), who shadows Marvin's character throughout the war. It's a key role that was butchered in the original, but serves a vital purpose in humanizing the enemy in any war. We learn much about the German sergeant in his small scenes, and while he is not likeable, he is certainly explicable. The two squad leaders end up in the same Tunisian hospital ward, after a battle, they are in a firefight in Sicily, where Schroeder gets the drop on Sarge, yet is the one wounded, and later they fatally meet at the war's end. Yet, what Ebert fails to realize is that such soliloquizing in war films is not reality, and he is wholly wrong on his closing point. All great war pictures- and all great films, focus on the human element, not the grand themes alone. It's only when the grand themes somehow clarify the human element that a film- war or not, achieves greatness.
In this film, that moment comes after the grunts, or dogfaces, storm Normandy, take Belgium, storm an insane asylum, are repelled in the Ardennes Forest during the Battle Of The Bulge, cross Germany, and liberate a death camp in Czechoslovakia. There, Griff, who earlier feared for his manhood, and almost got himself killed on D-Day, due to his insecurities, discovers the death camp ovens, and human skeletons within. He also finds a live and defenseless German soldier, and shoots him dead, inside another oven. Yet, even after the first shot or two, he keeps on shooting, reloads his rifle, and shoots some more. This is realism, yet also symbolism, and says far more than the banal pleadings of the old Private Ryan to his wife, at the end of Spielberg's terrible film, when he asks for reassurances that he's a good man. Griff knows he is a good man, and that's precisely why he kills the German, who is now just a symbol of the evil he has seen up close. The sexual aspect of the long rifle being shot repeatedly into the oven's orifice, and the realization that this is Griff's moment to become 'a man', is not overdone, but powerfully symbolic nonetheless. The sergeant also has his grand moment, when he shows some tenderness to a liberated death camp boy, whose identity is unknown, who then dies as he rides the Sarge's shoulders after an afternoon together. The film ends full circle, with Schroeder, whom we have seen seems to be a true believer in the Nazi cause, laying down his weapon when news of Germany's surrender comes. He goes to give himself up, comes upon Sarge, who, again, knifes a defenseless German, only to find out that this war also ended four hours earlier. In any other film this would have seemed forced, but in this film, we can suspend disbelief and swallow the fact that such coincidences do happen, and that this could be just a continuation and furthering of Sarge's guilt complex.
Yet, the sergeant has no regrets, this time, for we can see the dead death camp boy still plagues him, as, just before Schroeder surrenders, we see the sergeant playing with the boy's music box, which ends up being crushed in the struggle between the two squadron leaders. Yet, when it is found that Schroeder is still alive, the five soldiers save his life, and Sarge ends the film carrying the German over his shoulders, as Fuller ends the film with a long look into Lee Marvin's grizzled, yet sublimely human face, and the exquisite stoke that the five Americans have more in common with the surviving German than they do with their dead comrades, the replacement soldiers for their unit, all of whom died in combat. Survival is the only real victory in war.
Yet, there has been a lot of misinterpretation of the Schroeder character, especially with his expanded role in The Reconstruction. We see Schroeder kill other Germans, a soldier in North Africa and a Contessa, who are not true believers (and show that average Germans were not all monsters), yet he is clearly not the picture of evil that film critic Richard Schickel, who supervised the restoration, claims in his DVD commentary, for we see scenes of him in France where he says that a French woman's husband was a fool for not surrendering. He is not a diehard Nazi, after all, at least not in the Japanese kamikaze sense, as he rather easily abandons his professional soldier status when the war is lost. In that way, he has a distinct code of honor, not unlike Sarge's, and is just a man with a particularly nasty job he loved, but can dispose of when done. It's just that the strictures of his code are both different and more malignant than Sarge's. One can easily imagine, though, that if their roles were reversed, Sarge and Schroeder would have done exactly the same things that the other one does in the name of their country. After all, Sarge tells his fresh faced grunts, at film's start, that soldiers don't murder, they merely kill.
The rest of the DVD package comes on the second disk, where there is a stills gallery, trailers for the original and restored versions, plus radio and tv spots, a war department film called The Fighting First, a profile of Fuller, a making of documentary on The Reconstruction, called: The Real Glory: Reconstructing The Big One, an Anatomy of A Scene before and after demonstration, and some alternate scenes. Schickel's commentary on the first disk is rather straightforward, and punctuated by gaping silences. Yet, the restoration by Schickel and editor Bryan McKenzie, aided by filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich, from footage located in a vault in Kansas City, is terrific, especially in the color resolution and sound reconstruction.
What really sets this film, especially the reconstructed version, apart from many other war films is the down time scenes, when the men are not at war. There are scenes of feasting, absurdity, dullness, and humor, such as when a Nazi radio propagandist tries to dissuade the Americans from attacking. There are also scenes of a grunt who loses a testicle by stepping on a land mine, a birth in a tank, a queer German doctor who kisses Sarge in the Tunisian hospital, the spanking of a child German sniper, English-speaking German infiltrators who move among the Americans, just waiting to strike, helpless children as war's first victims, soldiers dug into holes as a panzer tank division rides over them, an endless series of almost generic 'replacements', and other vignettes that just occur and pass, as does real life, as many of the scenes are left loose and untidy.
All of this, plus the eye level view of a grunt, make this film something special. And, unlike Oliver Stone, Fuller does not need to wave his political banner in a viewer's face. Also, Lee Marvin is simply fantastic- this is his greatest role, and he should have won an Oscar for it, even though Hollywood would never honor a man like Fuller. Compared to Tom Hanks' sergeant in Spielberg's garbage, Marvin's is the kind of man men would follow into battle, and die for. The reconstructed film opens with the quote, 'This is fictional life based on factual death,' and ends with an epitaph for Fuller. Never has a film's epigraph been more on target, nor more poignant. The Big Red One: The Reconstruction will be de rigueur viewing for war film buffs as long as films are watched. Who needs an Oscar with that sort of legacy?