Sunday, February 27, 2011

#71 - The Big Red One

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
SUMMARY: The movie jumps 24 years to a troop transport involved in Operation Torch. Narration is provided by Private Zab (Robert Carradine) who is a member of your typically heterogeneous rifle squad led by the Sergeant. They are sweating! They talk like soldiers do before they are going to risk their lives. Lots of ribbing and bravado. They authentically place condoms over their rifle barrels to keep the sand and seawater out.

the gruff, but lovable, Sergeant
     The movie follows the exploits of the Sergeant and his “Four Horsemen”. Besides the aspiring novelist Zab and the sharpshooter who refuses to shoot humans Griff (Mark Hammill), there is Vinci (Bobby DiCicco) playing the obligatory Italian-American and the farm-boy Johnson (Kelly Ward). Our heroes need a villain so their paths will cross those of a fanatical Nazi named Schroeder. We know he is a bad-ass when we meet him he has a potato-masher in his boot and he murders another soldier for criticizing the war effort.

     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
     In a typically bizarre scene, the five hide in a cave during a German counterattack and when a naval bombardment causes Germans to take refuge in the cave (one at a time), they kill each as they enter like in an old Three Stooges flick. In another, a boy with his dead mother’s body takes them to a German gun position in exchange for a decent burial for his mom.

     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"
     Next, our heroes go after some Germans using an insane asylum as a forward artillery observing post. A fire-fight breaks out during which one inmate grabs a machine gun and opens random fire proclaiming “I am one of you, I am sane”. Heavy-handed, much?

     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 trailer

the concentration camp kid

Next up:  #70 -  Hail the Conquering Hero


  1. I somehow expected something different or let's rather say your review doesn't correspond with what I expected this movie to be. I thought it would be much more rounded and not as episodic. In any case I will watch it as it is a movie I am quite curious about. Never thought of it as a B movie either. But as said, I haven't watched it yet.

  2. I loved the movie when it first came out and was surprised that when I watched it critically it was not nearly as good as I thought. As far as it being a B movie, I do not think it is. I was reflecting the attitudes of some critics. I do not think you will like it. You might enjoy the birth in the tank scene, however. It has some French in it.

  3. This was a spot on review. This is not a great movie (too weak in some areas) but it is a very good one. Time has been good to it critic-wise however. Leonard Maltin even gives it 3 1/2 stars and calls it "poetic". I think alot of that is due to the fact he is a Sam Fuller admirer. Fuller was a good, down to earth director that got alot out of his stars. Most of his movies (especially the early noir) are pretty low budget. I think BR1 was actually one of his higher budget affairs.
    The reason this one is memorable is Lee Marvin. Plain and simple. Perfect role for him. He's one of my favorite actors. A tuff guy with a sense of humor. He grounds this movie among some weak younger actors and that is exactly what Fuller wanted i think. Hamill was just coming off Star Wars a few years earlier and his acting was still no better. Caradine, while a better actor, is a little too caracature with that cigar for me. The other boys are interchangable. But again I think Fuller didnt mind that. Afterall, in real war young soldiers become somewhat "interchangable" unfortunately. Fuller was shooting for the different experiences that occur in war and the reactions to it. Marvin is there for the "seen it all" figure.
    I dont think this was Marvin's best acting job. Perhaps his most honest. Best would go to Point Blank (intensity)or Cat Ballou (variety). My favorite Marvin movie is still Emperor of the North which is a borders-on-great action movie about train riding hoboes. A historical piece also as its set during the Great Depression. Similar to BR1 in that Marvin plays a mentor to a younger hobo (Keith Caradine...Caradine connection alert!) A nice showcase for tuff guy actors too: Ernest Borgnine and Marvin.
    What weakens BR1 the most is its episodic nature. Its really vignettes strung together with the framing device of the Schroeder/Sergaent. I actually liked the framing except for the fact that Marvin looks kinda silly trying to be a younger version of himself. He's too wrinkled, which was always part of his appeal anyway. But him saving his nemisis at the end, while a bit corny, works with the character.
    The best scene in the movie by far to me is when Marvin carries the boy around on his shoulders. The boy is eating an apple and just slowly slumps over and dies. Marvin doesnt say a word, just feels for the boys pulse. Its all acting with the eyes. Beautifully done and perfectly captured the tragedy of war.
    Was Fuller a B movie director. I dont think he would have minded people thinking so. I would view him as a grade A...B movie director.
    Oddly enuff Spielburg took a similar approach to young men at war with an episode of Amazing Stories i saw once. I think it was even filmed in B/W. The plot was a bunch of young soldiers landing at D-Day and how they are saved by another soldier they were making fun of. The predicable hook was that he was already killed at the time. Up to that point the production values were great. Fuller never had Spielburg's budget of course so its nice to see they have "reconstructed" his movie. The only version i have seen so far is the original one which didnt get much notice when it first came out im sure.
    Good review there brother.

    1. I like your take on this movie. I saw it in theatres when it came out and was very impressed (Also inexperienced with WWII movies). I own copies of both the reconstruction and the theatrical release. Prefer the original on principle. Fuller wasn't around to supervise the reconstruction and iron out the rough edges. The worst one is the Hurtgen forest vignette with the German infiltrator. Doesn't fit with anything else.

  4. Nicely done. Some cogent points. I agree especially about this being a showcase for Marvin. I wonder what his character did between the wars. In the opening, he is an elderly private (?) and then by 1942 (24 years later) he is a grizzled sergeant. He could not have stayed in the army between the wars unless he kept getting demoted. I cannot really complain about his being obviously too old for the role, not after seeing Harrison Ford movies lately. How old was Clint Eastwood when he made "Heartbreak Ridge"?........ I just looked it up and would you believe - 56. The same age as Marvin when he made BR1!!!

    I read where when Marvin met his co-stars he asked which was Carradine and proceeded to tell him "f*** you". Later, he explained to Carradine he did it because Carradine was the only one he had heard of. How cool is that?

    I did not like the Schroeder stuff. It was too implausible and too easy. I found the encounter at the end especially ridiculous. Schroeder would have fought to the end, unless all that other stuff was bullshit. I also find it a little disconcerting that the Sarge would make the same mistake again. He must be one crass individual to not have vowed to never do that again!

    I agree the part with the little boy was very well done. But it makes the movie seem bipolar since those two scenes occur back to back.

    My favorite Marvin movie is "The Professionals". Try comparing that cast with BR1 and see if your head does not explode.

  5. I always assumed that Marvin's character was a lifer and stayed in the Army through both wars. The Army, AFAIK, did not adopt an up-or-out system until after WWII, so it is possible that a private in 1918 could be a buck sergeant in 1942.

  6. The story of the soldiers getting saved in combat, then finding that their rescuer was dead before the rescue, is an old one. It seems to surface in every war, with minor variations. It is a military equivalent of an urban legend, like the college students' story of the phantom hitch hiker.

  7. As a sidebar, I read an interview with spielberg once in which he spoke with admiration about Fuller. They were coming out of the premiere for BR1 and Spielberg congratulated Fuller who replied "It's bullshit. All my war movies are bullshit!" Shocked, Spielberg asked why. "The studios always made me compromise, and not one of my movies showed the real horror of war. If i had made one single movie that showed war the way it really is, people would throw up in the aisles and young men would refuse to wear the uniform". II am paraphrasing from memory, of course). So that one encounter was part of why Spielberg made the D-Day landing scene the way he did.

  8. Cool story. Makes you wonder what Fuller could have done with Speilberg's budgets and power. However, Fuller has to bear most of the blame for the ridiculous aspects of this script.

  9. So many people blindly defend this movie that I'm glad to see some people viewing it through a critical lens. It's shocking how overrated this movie is, especially among professional critics. Even at a 7 overall, I think you're giving it too much credit. I couldn't stomach it after the first half.

  10. A lot of the critical love has to be because of the esteem for Fuller. It reminds me of the unreserved love for Peckinpah.

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  12. I would say It is my favorite war film (at least american/historical) But I don't really care for the genera, so I guess that's light praise.

    From my experience it is NOT a chick flick. The kid hauling around his dead mother and the frozen butt joke are 2 exit points for the women i've tried to show it to.

    Also the “I am one of you, I am sane” guy (while possible a bit overhanded) is my picture of Donald Trump

    1. Good point about it being female friendly. It was one of my favorites too, until I viewed it a second and third times. Each time I watched it I picked up more flaws. I like the Trump analogy.


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