The Big Red One

on November 12, 2004 by Wade Major
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3s???thing that distinguishes the posthumous "reconstruction" of Samuel Fuller's "The Big Red One" from the original 1980 release comes at the end of the opening titles, even before a single frame of picture. It's a title card that reads: "This is fictional life based on factual death." However minor it may seem in the overall scheme, the restoration of that simple quote is emblematic of everything else that follows. Through changes both subtle and grandiose, an already impressive PG-rated 113-minute war drama has been transformed into a devastatingly profound R-rated 163-minute epic. What was once episodic now seems almost mythic, nearly an hour of excised footage restoring vital narrative linkages and underscoring details which, for the first time, convey a very real and personal sense of Fuller's own combat experience in World War II.

Though neither version of the film can rightly be called a "director's cut"--the first was taken away from Fuller in the editing--it's no stretch to say that the new one comes closest to what he himself intended. Working from Fuller's original shooting script and notes, a team of experts and archivists--overseen by film critic and producer Richard Schickel--has managed to do much more than simply restore lost footage; at long last, "The Big Red One" finally feels like a Samuel Fuller movie--gritty, nervous and unpredictable, yet strangely purposeful and profound. Restored, too, is Fuller's sense of the shocking, his knack for indelibly ironic imagery and the unmistakable swagger of his cutting.

Taking its title from the popular nickname for the U.S. Army's legendary 1st Infantry Division, Fuller chose as his film's focus a small squad of infantrymen who, from 1942 to 1945, weather the worst conflicts of World War II, from North Africa to Italy to D-Day, through France, into Germany and beyond. Despite surface similarities to the likes of "Saving Private Ryan" or "Platoon," "The Big Red One" is an altogether singular creature. Led by Lee Marvin as its grizzled Sergeant, Fuller's squad of soldiers (featuring a young post-"Star Wars" Mark Hamill and a pre-"Revenge of the Nerds" Robert Carradine, along with the remarkable Bobby Di Cicco and Kelly Ward) is a predictably colorful bunch who undergo a wholly unpredictable metamorphosis all but unique among war films. For theirs is not a mission as much as an ordeal--a long, slow slog toward an unknowable deadline that may, at any moment, be interrupted by destruction or death. At its most elemental, "The Big Red One" is a melancholy ode to survival and a tribute to those who are able to manage the feat against the most unimaginable odds. While it has absolutely nothing good to say about war, neither can it be called a prototypical "antiwar" film. Never one for messages, Fuller's movies instead operate on an instinctual, gut level, violently peeling pretense from reality to expose the ugly underbelly of life's brutal, naked truths.

The new material consists of assorted trims and at least eight previously unseen sequences, including one featuring a Fuller cameo as a combat cameraman and another with Fuller's wife, Christa Lang, in a more substantial part as a German countess. Nowhere, however, is the film as notably transformed as with the restoration of Siegfried Rauch's German Sergeant Schroeder. Almost non-existent in the previous cut, Schroeder's involvement is now substantial, ominously shadowing the Americans throughout their ordeal and giving added thematic import to their journey. Even scenes that have remained largely unchanged from the previous version--such as one involving a planned German ambush--acquire whole new levels of meaning by virtue of his involvement.

Fuller, of course, has never been an easy subject, either for critics or audiences. One of the last larger-than-life filmmakers of his generation, he was a fiercely independent artist who rarely, if ever, caved to any whim but his own. His very best films, of which "The Big Red One" is one, reverberate with a kind of aesthetic stubbornness that can sometimes be more alienating than engaging. But with "The Big Red One," Fuller went a step further, baring not only his soul but the wartime scars inflicted upon it. For all its merits, the 1980 version of the film denied audiences that connection. The new version both restores and reaffirms it. Starring Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill, robert Carradine, Bobby Di Cicco, Kelly Ward, Siegfried Rauch and Stephane Audran. Directed and written by Samuel Fuller. Produced by Gene Corman. A Warner Bros. release. Drama. Rated R for war violence and some language. Running time: 163 min

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