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The story of a hardened army Sergeant and four of his men from their first fight at the Kasserine Pass after the invasion of North Africa through to the invasion of Sicily, D-Day, the Ardennes forest and the liberation of a concentration camp at the end of the war. As the five of them fight - and survive to fight yet again in the next battle - new recruits joining the squad are swatted down by the enemy on a regular basis. The four privates are naturally reluctant to get to know any of the new recruits joining the squad, who become just a series of nameless faces. Written by
In the past several months, I've clicked by on television and seen that The Big Red One was on, and I would check it out for a few minutes or so, here and there as it were. I knew though, once it became official that the New York film festival was premiering it, that the reconstructed version of Samuel Fuller's epic was going to be seen as no longer being truncated. When it was over, I felt as though, like with his other films I've seen (Pickup on South Street and Shock Corridor to a degree), that I'd seen something special- a work of art that's told with such straight-forward precision it elevates the B genre. There is something about war that is, like life usually, a contradiction. There are scenes and instances in Fuller's film where confusion occurs, and tragedy comes about as if it's springing out of nature.
But what Fuller captures as well is the camaraderie, so to speak, of the platoon- the humor, the understanding of one another that strengthens when other soldiers come and go without much notice. And the strengths and humanity of the sergeant (here portrayed in a performance that could possibly be better or at least on part with what was in The Dirty Dozen) comes through clearest of all. The Big Red One, at its extended length, is one of Fuller's triumphs as a storyteller; infusing his own experiences in the first battalion (the cigar that re-appears with one character signify who he made as his kind of alter-ego) as well as others he fought with, stories he heard, etc. While it is a film that lends itself partly to the ideals of the "old-fashioned" WW2 films, it's very modern in its personal take on the situations, battle sequences/outcomes, and the dynamics of the characters. To put it another way, what Oliver Stone was to Vietnam, Samuel Fuller was to WW2, to an extent.
Though his version of, for instance, the invasion of Omaha beach, doesn't have the grainy, documentary feel of Saving Private Ryan, the realism and suspense and chaos it all there. Fuller's experience as a journalist - his sense of detail and pacing in the scenes - is what gives that sequence involving Marvin and his men, among others, such truth. Along with the Israeli cinematographer Adam Greenburg, who would go on to lens the first two Terminator films, The Big Red One brings forth numerously unforgettable images. The climax, in and of itself, in which the quote I mentioned is put to the test for Mark Hammil's Pvt. Griff, is extraordinary. The shots, the faces, and usage of light, and the acting by him and the others, brought to me some of the strangest emotional reaction (not as in crying, but empathizing) I ever felt in a war film. In that respect the film, in scenes like that, and in the little moments with the "four horsemen" and their episodes, are on the level (if not superior) to the emotional connectedness that Spielberg or Stone achieved.
The script is a feat as a story of the stead-fast progression of the soldiers from North Africa to Germany. However without the cast it might have faltered. Marvin pulls off a rounded character by the end and is successful in his own right, but the four privates are the show. Most of the time if not all through, Ward and Di Cicco (not very well known actors to me before viewing this film) are very dependable for some comic and sensible interludes. Carradine's Zab (Fuller's re-incarnation) is in a performance of insight, amusement, and is a crucial piece to the film. It is Hammil then that comes away as most rewarding. His character is given a brilliant arc as the sharpshooter, and in the "cremation" scene, he proves he is far more valuable and compelling an actor most would give him credit for. My advice to people who think he can only play Skywalker and the occasional voice-over work is that this film is a must-view.
I can say, in wrapping up this review, that there was not much at all to nit-pick or complain about with this film, long length and all. There may or may not have been truth to the English-speaking Germans, but that didn't matter to me. When some of the dialog was not entirely clear as well, that was not a problem. Almost every frame (in particular a few key long shots on the beaches and some close-ups of faces and eyes in the third act) are like carefully molded sculptures/paintings of the condition of war. Bottom line, I can't tell whether or not the film has bettered from the additions, but I do know for certain I would not want to sit through a truncated version when these forty or so minutes fit in so well. So, whether you've seen the original 1980 version or not, when this new version comes to DVD, it's for certain to be a collector's item.
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