Only a couple of months ago this movie was released on DVD over here and there was a lot of publicity about it. They even stated that this was probably the best World War II movie ever. I'm quite familiar with that kind of movies and I've already seen a big part of them, classics as well as new ones. The most impressive ones I already have in my private DVD collection (Saving Private Ryan, Patton, The Longest Day, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Cross of Iron,...), but I must say that these quotes really made me curious about this movie. On the other hand I didn't want to buy it before seeing it first, because I'm a marketeer myself and I'm all too familiar with good promo talk. They promise you heaven, but in the end you remain with your two feet on the ground while being very disappointed. Now that it was shown on television, I could finally watch it for myself and make up my own opinion about it.
Even though "The Big Red One" is a WWII movie, it starts in the trenches of WWI. It's November 11 in 1918, just after 11 o'clock in the morning, when a German comes out of his trench and says to the surprised American soldier that the war is over. Of course he doesn't believe him and he immediately kills him. After taking the insignia with a red one on it from the man's uniform he returns to his own trench, only to hear that the war is really over and that he has murdered a man (during a war it's called killing, after and before one it's called murder). Almost 25 years later, he's back as a soldier, this time in WWII. He made it to sergeant and now leads a rifle squad in the same division in which he served during WWI, the First Infantry. They get their first battle experience when they invade the by Vichy France occupied Northern Africa. From there on they go to Sicily, France (Omaha Beach on D-Day), Belgium, Germany and Czechoslovakia. As they make their way through Africa and Europe, only five men, including the sergeant, seem to be able to survive. The others are replaced by new, anonymous soldiers who the 'veterans' don't want to know too much about because they will die soon anyway...
If you want to know what to expect from this movie, than I believe that you have to see it as some kind of combination of "Band of Brothers", "Saving Private Ryan", "The Longest Day"... But don't get me wrong. I wouldn't compare it to any of these movies and there are two reasons for that: first of all was it created with a much smaller budget than those other movies and the second reason is that I don't think that any movie deserves to be compared and analyzed with another movie in the back of your mind. I'm convinced that every movie deserves to be seen on its own. Now that you know this, I can give you my opinion about the positive and negative sides of this movie.
There is only one thing that really bothered me in this movie. They sometimes didn't take the time to fully develop all the possibilities a certain part of the story offered. Too many times I had the feeling that certain scenes had been cut in half, that they didn't stay long enough to fully tell the story about what happened in each country. And yes, I saw the long, restored version of the movie, so that can't be the problem. Also somewhat difficult for me was the use of an American Sherman instead of a German tank, but I'm willing to see past that for once because this wasn't the most important and interesting part of the movie.
This movie deserves to be seen because it was one of the first war movies that didn't just rely on showing all the battle scenes and that didn't stay on one location, but followed a group of soldiers on their tour of duty while having big interest in the character of the man behind the gun and not just in his capability to fight. This is one of the few classic war movies that has taken its time to fully develop its characters and I truly believe that the viewers should pay more attention to that. What I also appreciated was that Sam Fuller, even though it's obvious that he couldn't make use of a big budget, was still able to make such a powerful movie out of it. The emotions are real, the fact that the veterans didn't pay much attention to the new-comers because they didn't want to lose another friend is the way it really was, the quiet sergeant who has to 'fight' against the will of some of his soldiers,... It all works.
In the end this may not be the best WWII ever, many will be disappointed by the small scale of the battle scenes for instance, but when it comes to character development Sam Fuller sure didn't have to learn a lesson. Also the fact that the scenery in the movies was pretty accurate (Take for instance the part in the Ardennes in Belgium, where there were real pine trees, green hills,... instead of the olive trees and a sandy desert shown in "The Battle of the Bulge"), that the Americans too got killed and weren't some kind of supermen who could kill an entire German battalion with only three men and two rifles, made this movie a lot better than some other 'classics'. I really liked this movie and I'm sure that I'll buy it when I get the chance to find the fully restored version (probably called the director's cut or something like that).
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