The Big Red One (1980)

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By Scott Ross

Who’s afraid of Samuel Fuller?

I was, George. I was.

A decade or so ago, when I first became fully aware of Fuller, as more than just a name, it was as a result of discovering a clutch of paperbacks bearing his byline in a second-hand book shop: His early newspaper mystery The Dark Page, the caper-thrillers Crown of India, Quint’s World and Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street, and the novel based on his war-time experiences, and the screenplay he fashioned from them, the extraordinary fictionalized memoir The Big Red One. I found Fuller’s voice unique—tough, witty, sardonic, yet curiously and endearingly matter of fact about some of the harsher realities of life lived in violence, whether private (crime) or public (war.) I should have been well and truly primed, by the time I finished these compulsively readable novels, for Fuller the writer/director.

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Should have been, but wasn’t. For the simple reason that, aside from a few studio items like the 1953 Pickup on South Street, I had come to understand that Fuller’s aims nearly always exceeded his budgets. I was, somehow, afraid of Fuller’s movies. Not of their content, although his work tends either to be derided as vulgar trash by the John Simons of the movie world on one side, or venerated as inviolate masterpieces by the Quentin Tarantinos on the other—both of whose voices are equally suspect and neither of whose opinions matter to me, at least in this area. (Simon is occasionally useful. None of Tarantino’s opinions ever matter.)

My fear of Fuller was similar to my approach/avoidance of Orson Welles’ independent work. Only three times in his history as a writer/director was Welles given anything like an “A” budget, and in only one of these cases was the final product presented whole, without mutilating cuts by the studio. Welles, like Fuller, had grand designs that he was almost never given the fiscal freedom to realize. That said, what he did with those tiny budgets and their concomitant paucity of technical assistance was often stunningly effective, and occasionally (as in Mr. Arkadin—at least as evidenced in Criterion’s “comprehensive” edition—Falstaff/Chimes at Midnight and F for Fake) well beyond that.

Still, with Fuller as with Welles, I despaired to see those grand visions diminished by poverty-row funding, although my veneration for Welles should have taught me that, for the truly inspired, cutting corners does not mean an ipso facto diminution of pacing, dialogue, narrative drive, storytelling arc or even effective, and affecting, use of the medium. So it is with The Big Red One.

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I no longer remember how, or why, I missed the release of this one back in 1980, as my moviegoing habit was in full cry then (as opposed to now, when I avoid new movies out of a very different sort of fear—that of being disappointed yet again.) Over the years since I began to gather that the original Lorimar release was far from what Fuller had in mind, which only caused my discomfort with seeing it to double, or even treble. Since to my knowledge it never played the Raleigh/Durham area, I purchased the 2004 “reconstruction” on DVD (spurred by those novels of his, and Adam Simon’s lovely 1996 Fuller tribute The Typewriter, the Rifle and the Camer) some time ago, along with, at various times, his postumously published memoir A Third Face, the Criterion Pickup on South Street and the cheap-o Troma release of Fuller’s Shark! (1969.) And, again, it was that fear of diminished returns, not of content, that kept me from watching any of them.

Last weekend, I made up for lost time. And am now, unofficially and based on a very limited sampling, a veritable Sam Fuller fanatic.

The financial constraints that are evident in The Big Red One, I was relieved to discover, in no way slacken the movie’s emotional impact. Yes, Fuller’s D-Day sequence is under-populated, and nowhere near as wrenchingly (and, one presumes, verifiably) gory as Steven Spielberg’s. But stack that against the central incident on Fuller’s Omaha Beach as the young cartoonist Griff (Mark Hamill) freezes in mid-duty, brought out of his shock by the calculatedly close shots fired in his direction by his Sergeant (Lee Marvin.) The moment goes on, in seemingly nose-thumbing contradiction to what, even in the late 1970s was becoming a rage for fast cutting, as Fuller holds on Hamill’s reaction. You will seldom, I think, ever see a purer example of sheer, murderous rage in a mere movie than the lingering glare Hamill gives Marvin just before he resumes his duty. And all of this without a single word of dialogue. That’s called craft. And it says (as Fuller might have, cigar clamped firmly between his teeth) The hell with words! What is the emotional truth here? Show, fer crissake, don’t tell!

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The emotional truth Fuller gets at in The Big Red One, with surprising subtlety and eloquence for a filmmaker known for his characteristic bluntness, is survival.  And once you’ve seen it, you understand why the saga obsessed him for so many years.

The movie is a guided tour though Fuller’s own World War II experience, conducted by four disparate and somewhat unlikely young Privates (left to right, below): Griff (Hamill), Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco), Johnson (Kelly Ward) and Fuller’s stogie-bearing alter ego Zab (Robert Carradine) and led by Marvin’s apparently implacable Sergeant. From their landing in North Africa in November 1942 to the liberation of the Flossenbürg concentration camp at Falkenau in the spring of 1945 and encompassing campaigns in Africa, Sicily, the D-Day landing at Omaha, the Bulge, the liberation of France, the invasion of Germany, V-E Day and the dispatch of a seemingly endless line of youthful replacements, this ragged quintet—the boys are known, with some awe, as the Sergeant’s Four Horsemen—sees, and survives, the majority of the major European battle sites of the War. It is, I suppose, stretching credulity to admit the deaths of none of them, but that too is part of Fuller’s mantra, stated in voice-over at the end by Zab: “Surviving is the only glory in war.”

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The Four Horsemen: Mark Hamill, Bobby Di Cicco, Kelly Ward and Robert Carradine, flank the irreplaceable Lee Marvin.

The “reconstruction” (overseen by perhaps my least favorite movie critic, Richard Shickel) restores the picture and adds roughly 45 minutes chopped by Lorimar in 1980. (An additional quarter-hour of so of sequences included as extras on the DVD proved intractable.) As with the recent revamp of Welles’ Touch of Evil, no one can know whether Fuller would have wholly approved the new edit (at nearly 450 pages, Fuller’s novel, taken from his original screenplay, contains even more incident) but it surely could not have hurt him as badly as the release of that truncated original.

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Perry Lang as Kaiser, the most likable of the squad’s replacements in “The Big Red One”—and the one with the longest shelf-life. Here, he enjoys Zab’s novel in an Armed Service Edition but doesn’t believe the cigar-chomping Private wrote it.

I’m always a little chary of calling a movie I’ve just seen for the first time “great”—real greatness in movie art, it seems to me, does not reveal itself in full after a single viewing, any more than a concert work of blazing originality and compositional complexity yields all its secrets at first hearing—but I also suspect The Big Red One of a sneaking greatness. It’s there in the perfectly delineated characters; in the strong, clean visuals; in the ripe, pithy, Fulleresque dialogue; and in the refusal to sentimentalize, even in the face of the insupportable. Fuller does not dwell on the horrors of Falkenau (which he saw firsthand) but on the effect of the unspeakable on his Four Horsemen. And it’s a pivotal moment for Griff, whose conscience cannot admit of the first essential of warfare: The need to kill. It isn’t, as some of the more moronic Imdb commentators have suggested, that Fuller dwells on the irony of the group’s pacifist firing endlessly at the German soldier he finds hiding in the ovens. Griff has been pushed to the limits of his endurance. After what he’s seen, and been through, one bullet for the executioner is not enough. He must go on killing, inflicting on that single available body the rough justice demanded of every participant when the obscenity is so far beyond calculation. Even the Sergeant, who understands, is taken aback by the cold fury of Griff’s methodical retribution.

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Mark Hamill’s Griff, the most pacifist of the Horsemen, discovers the rage to kill with impunity at Falkenau.

I’ve long felt Lee Marvin one of the most interesting actors of his time, and the easiest to underrate. Perhaps that’s why his splendid Hickey in the American Film Theatre’s four-hour The Iceman Cometh (1973) was universally panned; when you don’t push Hickey’s jovial but ultimately false bonhomie, it’s easier to feel you’re betraying the character. But if Hickey is the roaring success as a salesman everyone says he is, there’s got to be something held back. If everything is out there, all noise and surface and grinning laughter, what have you got left to sell? I wonder if it was Marvin’s then-status as a certifiable movie star that occasioned the dismissal of his performance. (Robert Ryan and Frederic March, who—deservingly—garnered the best reviews, had also been movie stars, but much earlier.)

Marvin’s performance here is a carefully observed as the most acclaimed of its year, DeNiro’s in Raging Bull, and a great deal easier both to appreciate and to like. His Sergeant may evoke death—and that pale, weary, stoic face is exactly what Fuller wanted for the effect—but he’s no automaton. There’s wisdom in him, a wit so dryly understated it’s sometimes impossible to laugh at, and reserves of compassion that belie his sandpaper exterior.

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Lee Marvin’s Sergeant carries a young victim of Flossenbürg/Falkenau at the beginning of the movie’s most deeply affecting sequence.

These qualities in Marvin’s almost astonishingly rich performance are nowhere better evidenced than in the long, nearly wordless sequence at Falkenau between the Sergeant and the emaciated boy he liberates, exquisitely rendered by Fuller and played with unerring perfection by Marvin. (The unnamed child is extraordinary too.)

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Sam Fuller in characteristic mode while shooting “The Big Red One,” firing off a pistol in lieu of shouting, “Action!”

A day after The Big Red One, I slipped my poor copy of the idiotically titled Shark! (Fuller had intended to call the movie Caine, after the name of his lead) into the DVD player. Even here, filming on a miniscule budget and at the mercy of both the elements and what is pretty obviously inferior camerawork, the Fuller touch with character, plot and dialogue come radiantly through.

A man who could do that is no one to be afraid of.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross

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4 thoughts on “The Big Red One (1980)

  1. Troma! They used to be right around the corner from me, the local Hell’s Kitchen movie studio. They owned a building and when real estate got hot here, they sold it. But everyone here knew Troma. I had an adventure or two with them as well. They just never had any interest in doing anything “good” although you will see their name on My Dinner With Andre!

    • Neat. The “interviews” on the “Shark!” DVD are done with the speakers holding those microphones with the big baffles on them – very cheap. I think what most appealed to Lloyd Kaufman was Fuller’s independence. And he is very funny ranting about Elia Kazan (“that bastard!”)

      • You force me to sort-of name drop! True story:
        My erstwhile upstairs neighbor was an animal trainer. One day she showed up with a huge shaggy sheep dog. She said she was training it for Elia Kazan. I looked at the dog, said “SIT!” and the dog sat. I commanded “SPEAK!” and the dog said “Larry Parks.”
        (Ok, I made that last part up… but what would you do if you had met Kazan’s pooch?)

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