At last … the really ‘Big Red One’

[originally published in Steadycam, February 13, 2005; an earlier version of this article was published late 2004 in Queen Anne & Magnolia News]

Samuel Fuller—whose credit on his movies always read

WRITER
PRODUCER • DIRECTOR
SAMUEL FULLER

with WRITER on top like that—came to Seattle in May 1976 for a special appearance with two of his movies under the aegis of the Seattle Film Society. He came to enjoy himself, to meet some nice people, to eat some of that Northwest salmon a film-historian friend back in L.A. had urged him to order. And he would talk, not only between the two films in a UW auditorium but also during the five hours between landing at SeaTac Airport and showing up for the gig. And from 10-something the next morning till 11-something the next night, while relays of much younger listeners basked, then collapsed and disappeared as replacements showed up.

He also brought his work along with him, in the form of a stack of paper and a tall, klunky manual typewriter that looked as if it might have come out of one of the newsrooms where he had pounded out stories nearly half a century earlier as a tabloid reporter in New York. He was writing his novel The Big Red One, part of the process of getting to make a movie about what it was like to serve in the 1st Infantry Division, United States Army, from the beginning of America’s participation in World War II to the end—which is to say, from North Africa through Sicily, France, Belgium, again France, and finally to Germany and Czechoslovakia. He had been waiting for the chance to make that movie since sometime in the Sixties (but really, perhaps, since 1945). In 1976, it looked as if it was about to happen, since the critic turned filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich was throwing his own (short-lived) clout into lining up a production deal for Fuller. As it turned out, three more years would pass before he got the go.

But he really did find time to write that weekend, both nights he was here.

***

The film of The Big Red One was originally released in 1980. Lee Marvin and Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker of Star Wars) were the only marquee names attached. They weren’t all that marquee; Marvin’s late-career credits were an unbroken line of indifferent-to-downright-bad movies, and Hamill’s stardom was an instant joke, even within the Lucasfilm franchise. In any event, The Big Red One wasn’t a showcase for either of them. The idea was to follow one eternal Sergeant (Marvin) and four youthful members of his rifle squad all the way through the war. The sweep was epic, but the method wasn’t. None of these dogfaces would ever have “the big picture” of what battles and campaigns were supposed to achieve, and neither would the audience—not even by way of the occasional voiceover commentary by “Zab,” the boyish, cigar-chomping novelist played by Robert Carradine and clearly put forth as surrogate for the young Sammy Fuller. (The other two of the Sergeant’s “Four Horsemen”—all of whom miraculously made it through the war without a scratch—were played by Bobby DiCiccio and Kelly Ward.) The action pretty much proceeded from battle to battle, with scenes sometimes joining the fight in progress.

Lee Marvin and his Four Horsemen

Fuller had ended up making the movie for Lorimar, a TV production company that ventured a brief reach for movie-studio status. Although way larger than any budget he had had while making such B-movie masterpieces of the Fifties and Sixties as The Steel Helmet, Pickup on South Street, Run of the Arrow, Underworld U.S.A., and Shock Corridor, the $4 million promised for the picture actually kept shrinking as production went along. It was shot in Israel, one of the few places the Big Red One didn’t fight, and that country had to stand in for North Africa and all the European locations except green Belgium (i.e., Ireland). The film, too, had to shrink. Fuller’s first cut reportedly came in at four and a half hours. In the early Eighties there was a growing conviction in Hollywood that movies in excess of two hours were box-office poison, and The Big Red One ended up going into release at 113 minutes.

Let it be said that even in what sounds like severely truncated form, The Big Red One was an amazing movie, with half a dozen sequences of neck-snapping dynamism and audacity any director could envy. Fuller wanted to cover the Big Red One’s war from the first shot fired to the last—and the first shot in World War II would be fired by a dead man. (Recall that Run of the Arrow featured the last shot fired in the Civil War, and fired it twice, at the beginning and at the end of the picture) Then there was the terrible fight at Kasserine Pass in Africa, with GIs burying themselves in holes not quite deep enough to escape being crushed under panzer treads. And the sequence in a bat cave where, choking in the yellow dust from passing tanks, the Sergeant’s squad dispatches enemy soldier after soldier as they wander in to relieve themselves. And the liberation of an insane asylum in Belgium, where Nazis loll complacently among the inmates until their throats are slit by Resistance fighters, and a madman sprays American and German, living and dead, sane and insane, with a stray machine gun.

Still, reviews for the film were mixed. Critics with little regard for Fuller’s “auteur” eminence shrugged the picture off as an action movie about a war no one any longer was interested in. Their ostensibly hipper counterparts thought Sam had waited too long to make it and had lost his edge; they pronounced a nostalgia for the bargain-basement, freaky-deaky days of Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss. Box office was spotty, and awards were out of the question. The Big Red One did acquire a passionate cult—I myself rated it the second-best picture of 1980, just behind Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and ahead of Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard—and many’s the viewer who stumbled over it on a double bill or later on TV and never forgot it. For his part, Fuller always hoped somehow, someday, to reconstitute his own long cut of the movie. He died in 1997 with that dream, too, unfulfilled.

***

Another critic turned (documentary) filmmaker, Richard Schickel, became a Fuller admirer during the director’s final years. There were supposed to be boxes and boxes of Big Red One footage stored away somewhere at Warner Bros. (Warners having ended up with the rights to the long-defunct Lorimar’s films). With the assistance of another Fuller devotee, studio vice president Brian Jamieson, he began trying to run down the missing footage. Eventually they got lucky, lucky enough at any rate to assemble a more comprehensive edit that restores 15 sequences never seen before and flesh out 23 others. At two hours and 43 minutes, the “new” film is still short of Sam’s fabled four-hours-plus, but that figure may have been inflated to begin with (and almost all first cuts are meant to be tightened, even by the directors themselves).

Robert Carradine as Zab

Even to someone who already admired the 1980 film, the 2004 version is a revelation and marks a vast leap in power and comprehensiveness. In every way, The Big Red One is bigger and, yes, (F)uller. We are shown things we never dreamed existed, yet needed to see. Above all, the rhythm—so essential to making complex sense of the astonishing particularities of Fuller’s bald-faced writing and imagery—has been allowed to accrete and flex as never before.

Let’s stipulate that David Bretherton, hired as “supervising editor” on the 1980 release version, was not in an enviable position; who would relish the assignment, “Cut this movie by half”? Yet how could any editor have brought himself to throw away the first half of an early battle in North Africa, wherein the Sergeant’s squad finds its confrontation with tenacious German troops in a canyon complicated by clouds of African warriors on horseback whirling about a concealed German tank? Or the did-I-see-that? moment when a German officer who has wounded the Sergeant is himself wounded by the spitting muzzle of a German tank gun careening by? Or the opening of the sequence where the Sergeant, lying supine on a hospital bed in Tunis, is romanced by a gay German doctor?

Deadpan, survivalist grotesqueries abound in the restored version. The Africans claim the ears of fallen Germans and trade them to the GIs for smokes; the Sergeant puts a stop to that, not out of squeamishness but because the ear-cutting is promiscuous. “After a fight you can’t tell the difference between a kraut ear and an American ear.”

The reconstruction gives still greater play to Fuller’s feeling for children caught up in the sidewash of history and atrocity. A small girl sits nearby as the Sergeant eats his C-rations on an African beach; he doesn’t offer her any, doesn’t even look directly at her, but simply sets his mess aside and walks away while she moves in to claim it. Another little girl, in Sicily, braids his helmet webbing with flowers (perhaps the most-reproduced still for the film) in the aftermath of a firefight. Finally there is the mute, anonymous child victim of the concluding extermination camp scene (“Jew? … Pole?…”). They were all in the original version of the film, but now we see that the flower girl’s role in the film’s design is more extensive—if also abruptly curtailed, a foreshadowing of the death toll of the film’s closing sequence.

The 1980 cut of the movie was remarkably chaste for an uncompromising view of wartime. The 2004 cut puts sex back into the movie, not orgiastically but as a fact of life and a rarely forgotten driving force. There’s the early, goofy scene of the rifle squad falling asleep to the seductive radio voice of Germany’s equivalent of Tokyo Rose. Later we find that the shootout at the Belgian asylum has a tender, if scarcely less surreal, follow-up: an interlude of lovemaking between Griff (Hamill) and the Belgian resistance fighter (Stéphane Audran), as they hear—and are clearly heard by—the men stirring nearby in the night. Even more strikingly, the great sequence of the squad delivering a woman’s baby inside a tiger tank surrounded by newly dead Germans proves to have an outrageous comic detail at midpoint: the improvisatory obstetrician, a soldier who once had two hours’ first-aid training, stares at his patient’s (offscreen) vagina and confesses, “Hey, Sarge … I’m getting horny!” It’s a rare moment when the imperturbable Sergeant loses his cool.

Omaha Beach

Fuller’s refracting of the D-Day slaughter on Omaha Beach was always a great sequence, almost as harrowing in its way as Steven Spielberg’s 1998 flesh-ripping realization for Saving Private Ryan. It, too, is richer now, including its tour-de-force coverage of man after man dying to extend and assemble a Bangalore torpedo to blast through the barbed-wire barrier at the foot of the Normandy cliffs. This makes all the more telling Fuller’s signatory detail: a wrist watch on a dead arm in the surf marking the passage of lethal hours, as the water slopping over it grows redder and redder. (It’s a detail Fuller recalled from his own D-Day experience—only in real life, the arm was detached.)

Not everything restored to the film is wholly satisfying; Fuller was always as wildly uneven a filmmaker as he was gutsy and radical. In theory, it’s right that the Sergeant’s opposite number—a Wehrmacht lifer who shared a World War I encounter with him in the prologue and shows up again at key points in the new war—should cross the narrative trajectory more frequently than he was permitted to do in the Bretherton cut. But the actor, Siegfried Rausch, is pretty awful, and some of his scenes are not only abrupt, frustrating cutaways from the itinerary and characters we care about; they have been imagined with an appalling baldness and coarseness that diminishes, rather than deepens, the film overall. (An episode with a dissolute countess played by Christa Lang Fuller is the nadir.) And although I imagine semiologists will have a field day with it, I regret the appearance of the near-septuagenarian Fuller as a war correspondent taking characteristically Fullerian home movies of refugees, along with his actors close to stepping out of character, in a late scene.

Yet finally, these blemishes are minor. The arc of years, battles, and battlegrounds is so much more satisfying. The death of the would-be “fifth Horseman” (Perry Lang) was already a memorable Fuller passage (“Did I kill the guy who killed me?”). Now we can see that, even as the Sergeant’s boys strove rigorously to avoiding caring about the uncharmed lives that weren’t going to survive the war, his death is remembered, solemnized, and allowed to color what in the earlier cut of the film had seemed an extraneous or obligatory scene, an eerily chaste orgy during a moment out of war. It greatly enhances that interval, between the horrors of Belgium and the final movement back into Germany and toward war’s end, that Fuller also touches, bluntly and shockingly, on the phenomenon of the infiltrators—Americanized, English-speaking German warriors who donned GI khaki and moved among their enemies waiting for a chance to strike. Few World War II films have picked up on that aspect of the European war (just offhand, only William Wellman’s Battleground comes to mind), and The Big Red One is that much more definitive for including it.

Not just the new footage but the passage of time has contributed to another revelation about the film: Lee Marvin is magnificent. In 1980 it was easy to take him for granted. His casting as the Sergeant seemed almost too perfect. Sure, he was good, but with his weathered, bassetlike physog and almost saurian skin, he seemed less like an actor than a walking icon; the guy was even a WWII vet himself, wounded in battle. (Once, during an appearance on Dick Cavett’s talkshow sometime in the Seventies, the actor mentioned having earned a Purple Heart. “Where were you wounded?” Cavett asked. Classic Lee Marvin moment: “In the ass.”)

Now there’s no mistaking that the Sergeant is Marvin’s greatest role, rivaled only by his walking dead man in John Boorman’s Point Blank. Just beneath the masterly implacability, we are privileged to glimpse, without semaphored self-announcement, the tenderness, rage, dark humor, experience and wisdom beyond guilt that have enabled him to survive, to preserve others and to soldier on. Invited in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou to define the cinema, Sam Fuller famously took out his cigar and scowled: “The cinema is like a battleground. Love, hate, action, violence, death. In one word: emotion.” Lee Marvin’s Sergeant is the personification, and Sam Fuller’s single finest realization, of that definition.

Copyright © 2005 by Richard T. Jameson


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