BACK-STORY: “The Big Red One” is a war movie set in WWII – Europe. It follows a sergeant and his squad from North Africa to Sicily to D-Day and beyond. At the end they liberate a concentration camp. The movie is loosely based on the writer/director Samuel Fuller’s experiences with the 1st Division in WWII. The character Zab represents Fuller. The movie was released in 1980 with a substantial amount left on the cutting room floor. In 2004, the director’s cut was released almost doubling the length of the film. It was entitled "The Big Red One: The Reconstruction". This is the version that I am reviewing. The movie stars Lee Marvin in arguably his best role. Marvin was a veteran of WWII. He served in the Marines and was wounded at Saipan.
OPENING SCENE: In stark black and white, the movie opens on the last day of WWI. A black horse attacks the Sergeant (Marvin) and soon after a German soldier approaches trying to surrender, but he stabs him to death under a wooden crucifix. When he returns to an accurately depicted dugout, his commander informs him the war has been over for four hours. Oops! Maybe that’s why the German was not threatening me in any way. Oh, well, "c'est la guerre" (or that was la guerre five hours ago).
|Griff prepares his gun for safe sex|
|the gruff, but lovable, Sergeant|
Since the film was low budget, the Torch landing is a little cheesy and unrealistic. This is compounded by a silly exchange between the Americans and the Vichy French via megaphones. From here the film settles into its episodic nature. Scenes of the squad chilling and soldier-bantering are interspersed with action scenes. One of the themes is revealed to be the inability of Griff (Mark Hammill) to kill. The Sergeant opines that “We don’t murder, we kill. You don’t murder animals, you kill ‘em.”
Some of the episodes are surrealistic. At one point the squad is rescued by a French cavalry charge in a town! They battle the smallest tank in war movie history which despite its miniature size blows up like the Fourth of July when Zab tosses in a grenade.
At the Battle of Kasserine Pass, our boys bury themselves to survive the overrunning Panzers (actually Israeli Sherman tanks, but the other equipment and uniforms appear authentic). Griff panics and runs precipitating a rout in which the Sarge is wounded by Schroeder. When he returns from the hospital, there is a touching reunion with his four charges and we are introduced to the theme that these five are inseparable and unkillable. The same cannot be said for the replacements who periodically grace the screen for brief life spans. They should have come with “dead meat” stamped on their foreheads.
|the squad stalking Schroeder|
From Sicily, they move on to Normandy. The low budget makes the invasion look like it was done by one squad, but this fits the squad-level view of the movie. You won’t mistake this scene for “Saving Private Ryan”. In a scene similar to one in “The Longest Day”, they use a Bangalore torpedo relay to open up the beach. No covering fire, the rest just watch as each relayer gets shot. Griff is #8 and goes chicken again so the Sarge has to shoot at him. Tough love, but it works because when the explosion occurs the battle is won and we can move on to the next scene. The movie conveniently ignores that the busting of the barbed wire was followed by the scaling of the bluff and the taking out of bunkers, etc. to actually open up the beach.
In probably one of the most famous scenes, Schroeder sets up an ambush at the very same crucifix from the opening! The Germans lay around a tank playing dead while Schroeder hides behind Christ. Somehow Schroeder has figured out this is the one unit in the American army that will not plunder dead German bodies for souvenirs and important papers. The Sarge is not fooled and uses the tank’s machine gun to wipe out the krauts. Schroeder escapes, of course. A Frenchman on a motorcycle arrives with his pregnant wife and the GIs assist the birth inside the tank using ammo belts for stirrups. In a move to get giggles from 12 year old boys, the guys encourage the woman to push the baby out by chanting “poo-say” (hee! hee! get it?).
|"I am one of you, I am sane"|
In the Heurtgen Forest, they undergo tree bursts, but do not deign to dig in. The theme of a crass attitude toward the dead is explored. They take out one small artillery piece with a bazooka and suddenly the bombardment ends. The longest lasting replacement (Keiser) is killed in a foggy forest by a sniper who presumably passed up chances to kill the other five.
FINAL SCENE: The guys help liberate Falkenau concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. They have to assault the camp and kill the guards. Griff corners a Nazi hiding in one of the ovens and empties a clip into the German's face. Griff finally can kill! It’s a powerful scene partly abated by the fact that Mark Hammill cannot act.
Meanwhile, the Sergeant befriends a little Jewish boy who he walks around on his shoulders until he dies. Very poignant. It’s full circle time as Schroeder appears (small world, eh?) ready to surrender. This is the same fanatical Nazi who had murdered a German woman he had just slept with for criticizing Hitler. He is clearly unarmed and has his hands up, but the Sarge knifes him anyway. Would you believe the Sarge is immediately informed that the war is over? This has to be the least surprising case of déjà vu in war movie history. This time the Sarge makes amends for his senseless murder in WWI by working feverishly to preserve the life of the despicable Schroeder. Go figure. In a line straight from Moe Howard, the Sergeant proclaims that “you’re going to live if I have to blow your brains out!” Zab (Fuller) adds the postscript: “I’m going to dedicate my book to the survivors. Surviving is the only glory in war, if you know what I mean.”
Action – 7
Acting – 7
Accuracy – 6
Realism – 7
Plot – 7
Overall – 7
WOULD CHICKS DIG IT? Possibly. The cast is attractive. Lee Marvin is a commanding presence. The violence is not graphic. There are a few female characters including a French Resistance fighter in the insane asylum. The movie has a light touch at times and has emotional moments involving children.
ACCURACY: “The Big Red One” is a personal story and a small unit tale, so historical accuracy is not really a factor. Much of the historical incidents are handled in a simplistic manner. For example, the Torch invasion where the French open fire, but once their commander is killed, it's all hugs and kisses between the new allies. One could argue that the landing at Omaha Beach was much busier and complex than the movie implies, but the low budget of the film and the emphasis on following just five soldiers makes that a moot point. The 1st Division did fight in the different locales shown in the film. It did liberate the concentration camp. The arms and equipment (with the exception of the German tanks) are authentic.
CRITIQUE: “The Big Red One” plays as a series of weird vignettes. They are all interesting and move the narrative along and although each of them may have been based on an actual incident, it is highly unlikely than any squad would have had all these incidents happen to them. In fact, some of the scenes (e.g., the tank birth and the insane asylum) seem unlikely to have happened to anyone. The movie gets cred because supposedly it is autobiographical, but it is telling that the companion book by Fuller is a novel. Two minor incidents are based on Fuller’s experiences: when Zab discovers Keiser reading a novel written by Zab and when Zab acts as a runner to inform their colonel that they have broken through on Omaha Beach. That’s pretty puny to back up the claim that the movie is based on fact.
The film is strongest in its depiction of soldier life. The dialogue rings true. The relationships are realistic, including the paternal attitude of the sergeant and the refusal to bond with replacements. Fuller throws in little details that make the movie feel authentic. Things like the condoms on the rifle barrels, salt peter in the food to lower libido, and an “appearance” by “Axis Sally”.
Fuller has a sparse style. Some scenes end abruptly. It gives the movie something of an episodic feel. One begins to wonder what mess the squad will get into next. The battles are small-scale and end quickly. The battles are meant to be gritty, but the movie is firmly in the old school style, pre-“Saving Private Ryan”. Deaths are usually bloodless and of the “hands throw in the air” variety. In the D-Day landing scene, we get a shot of a soldier whose intestines are exposed, but zero other graphic shots.
The use of the Schroeder character to have a foil for the five is misguided, but typical of a B movie (which the movie has been described as). It reminds me of the main German character in “Saving Private Ryan”, but Speilberg did not go overboard like Fuller does. Meeting up with this one Nazi several times really strains credulity. Another problem is the important theme of Griff’s cowardice is never resolved. Another theme, war is brutal and arbitrary in dealing out death, is undercut by the survival of all five. In fact, only the sergeant even gets wounded. The movie would have much more powerful if one of the five had been killed. The deaths of most replacements is exaggerated, the invulnerability of the five is unrealistic.
CONCLUSION: “The Big Red One” is an entertaining and in many ways amusing war movie. Marvin is marvelous and the young actors are competent. It does a good job of informing the viewer about what it was like to be in a rifle squad in the 1st Division in WWII. However, on close examination, the movie does not hold up well. Much of it is implausible. Some of the incidents seem unlikely to have happened to any squad, much less to the same squad. This would be less of an issue if the movie was not touted as based on Fuller’s experiences. It's a fun movie, but undoubtedly overrated by many critics.
the concentration camp kid
Next up: #70 - Hail the Conquering Hero