Review: The Big Red One

[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]

Trying to flag down a notion of just how “pure cinema”—Hitchcock’s term—works is tricky. The implication is that there is a level on which film operates which is undetectable by those who are unwilling or untrained. Sounds kinda elitist, I’m sure, but this is probably why many people miss the glories of Halloween and The American Friend to settle for the satisfying conventionality of Brubaker‘s good intentions. All that’s really necessary for appreciating “pure cinema” is a pair of open eyes: when a filmmaker is fluent enough with the language of the cinema, then the bodies, images, sounds will accumulate, interweave, and a lasting impression will be registered through those open, willing eyes. To watch Robert Bresson’s Lancelot du Lac or Alfred Hitchcock’s Torn Curtain is to feel utterly in the hands of a master: every color, aperture, strand of dialogue, camera movement can be apprehended to be part of the bigger fabric of the movie, each cinematic event reflecting on another. Bresson’s Pickpocket is an example of pure cinema which employs a series of dispassionate images that, piled on top of each other as they have been by the end of the film, produce a startlingly moving fadeout.

Now Samuel Fuller has made his first film in eight years, The Big Red One, and it is a veritable cascade of such purely cinematic images. Fuller has left aside the bravura, thrilling camera movements that marked some of his earlier films, and settled on (sorry, “settled” is not a word to use when speaking of Fuller) a more Bressonian kind of tightly structured watching and following. From the opening moments of black-and-white bleakness on a field of dead men as a shellshocked horse startles Lee Marvin, the images are rich, varied, and all-of-a-piece. Others have said episodic (derisively); I say all-of-a-piece, because of the way all the elements in the story are linked, as the gang of five that we follow from North Africa to Czechoslovakia holds together.

OK, let’s grab an example here: after one of the dogfaces, Griff (Mark Hamill), has displayed cowardice, we see him separated from the others in his squad; they are sitting under one arch set against the beautiful sea and he is alone under another arch. When the Sergeant (Marvin) tries to tell him how to rationalize killing (his cowardice consists in nothing but a refusal to turn his expert marksmanship on the enemy), Griff rejects the argument. Now, a couple of years and many arches (and corpses) later, we see Griff framed within another arch: the camera is inside a concentration camp oven in Czechoslovakia and Griff is standing outside. Two facts confront him: there is a German soldier hiding in the oven, and he and his fellow Germans have been using these ovens to burn, actually to burn, other human beings. The emotional wallop as Griff raises his rifle and methodically begins to pump bullet after bullet into the hiding German (and at the camera) is totally honest. The moment has been earned by cinematic expertise, whether we have consciously traced that expertise or not.

This image-upon-image phenomenon is perfectly exemplified in the Omaha Beach sequence: heads bobbing together behind a sand dune, the sun shining off the water behind them; calling off a guy’s number so that he knows he’s next to run out and probably die; the closeups of a watch ticking away on a dead man’s wrist as the water swirling around it grows red with the blood of many other men. Economical but eloquent, the landing is much more impressive than the thousands of men we see in longshot in movies like The Longest Day; just a few well-selected compositions bring the horror and pragmatic heroism of war straight at us. We come to know the men of the Big Red One this way, too. Since we’re thrown into war with them, there’s no time for deep psychological backgrounds to be explained. But the way they behave on a sweaty transport ship before a beach landing, or their different reactions to the prospect of playing in the surf, or the way a would-be medic can react to the sudden necessity of delivering, a baby—this is how the men distinguish themselves, and why we ultimately care very deeply about what happens to them.

The film ends as somehow we knew it must, back at a situation similar to the beginning of the film; and we know that countries will go back to warring, and nothing much will have changed. Nothing, that is, except the individuals who served in that war. Pulp novelist Zab (Robert Carradine, whose nasally ironic narration is a joy throughout) observes, after a chilling episode in a Belgian insane asylum, that when you can’t tell the difference between crazy people and sane people, it’s pretty confusing for a soldier but great for a novelist. There is a lot these boys carry away from the experience—not that they would have chosen to go to war for it, but once they’re in it, they realize that learning the many ways of simply surviving is an art. There may be, as the end title to Fuller’s first war film, The Steel Helmet, proclaims, No End To This Story; but there is change, and the continual testing of our abilities to remain alive and well—as well as remaining alive well. The Big Red One taps an honest emotional spring because it succeeds as pure cinema. It also feels like a damn good movie because it is the record of someone who knows how to survive.

© 1981 Robert Horton

THE BIG RED ONE
Screenplay and direction: Samuel Fuller, after his novel. Cinematography: Adam Greenberg. Editorial supervision: David Bretherton. Music: Dana Kaproff. Production: Gene Corman.
The players: Lee Marvin, Robert Carradine, Mark Hamill, Kelly Ward, Bobby Di Ciccio, Siegfried Rauch, Stéphane Audran.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.