The Big Red One (1980 USA 113 mins)
Prod Co: Lorimar Prod: Gene Corman Dir, Scr: Samuel Fuller Phot: Adam Greenberg Ed: David Bretherton Art Dir: Peter Jamison Mus: Dana Kaproff
Cast: Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine, Bobby DiCicco, Kelly Ward, Siegfried Rauch, Stèphane Audran, Christa Lang, Samuel Fuller
The Big Red One: The Reconstruction (2004 USA 162 mins)
Additional credits: Prod Co: Lorimar/Lorac Productions Prod: Richard Schickel, Doug Freeman Ed: Brian McKenzie
Ten years of magical thinking have elapsed. I still wonder what the world would be like if Hitler had won the war. Or whether the world would exist at all if the Nazis had won.
Samuel Fuller’s combat film (The Big Red One), now restored under the supervision of film historian Richard Schickel, was stored on the hard-drive of Sam’s brain, as well as in his body and soul for more than three decades until he was able to get it out of his system. He should of course have been given four times the film’s actual budget, but World War II was not fashionable in the late 1970s. It was Vietnam that the public then wanted to see. WWII would only really be “revived” and “restaged” two decades later for Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Band of Brothers (2001). This renewed interest in WWII proved to be a key impetus for The Big Red One’s reconstruction
Those brave soldiers of WWII fought so valiantly thinking they were fighting in a “war to end all wars”. And The Big Red One clearly shows us the absurdity of war, its ultimate and underlying insanity. It also shows us male hysteria, multiplied 1000 times. For example, the scene in the mental asylum, where one of the inmates picks up a gun and starts shooting randomly at everything around him, ecstatically exclaiming “I am like you… I am sane” while pictured beneath the painting of “The Last Supper”, as many of the inmates continue to stoically wolf down their chow, is one of the many moments in the film that clarifies and demonstrates this insanity. It makes me think of a line from another excellent war movie, Franklin J. Schaffner’s Patton (1970): “Praying for good weather so we can kill our fellow man”.
Interestingly, producer Frank McCarthy had initially offered Patton to Sam, but at that point in his career he was still hoping to write and direct a film of his own reminiscences as a member of the 1st Infantry Division, nicknamed the “Big Red One” (he was in the 16th Infantry Regiment). McCarthy understood Sam’s refusal and made sure that James Edwards, who played the black medic in The Steel Helmet (1951), Sam’s controversial first war movie about the Korean conflict, was cast in Patton. Returning the “favour” nine or so years later, the actor who played Nazi Oscar Steiger (Siegfried Rauch) in Patton, provided an excellent performance as super-Nazi Schroeder in The Big Red One.
Francis Ford Coppola, another movie rebel who was then only in his late 20s, co-wrote the script for Patton but was subsequently fired (even though thanks to his great writing the film would go on to win numerous Oscars). In a parallel fashion, Sam, another rebel almost thirty years his senior, ultimately saw himself being denied final cut on his own opus ten years later.
“Film is like a battleground”, as Sam quipped to Jean-Paul Belmondo in Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou. Godard’s film was made in 1965 and I met Sam in Paris in September of that year. Yes, Sam not only lived through WWII’s major battles, he also filmed them. He wrote them too, “babyface”.