amuel Fuller's 1980 World War II movie "The Big Red One" won't sit
well with modern audiences. For one, it's rated PG, which is in itself a major
oddity with today's war movies. Although it's about the same war, with the same
good guys and bad guys, and explores the same themes as "Saving
Private Ryan" and "Band
of Brothers", "The Big Red One" is neither of those films.
It's different not only in tone, but style.
The film stars Robert Carradine as Zab, a Bronx novelist
who, along with three fellow grunts and a tough-as-nails Sergeant (Lee Marvin),
are part of the famous Big Red One rifle regiment. The film opens in World War
I, where the Sergeant kills a German soldier who claims the war is over -- and
in fact, he's right, although the Sergeant doesn't know it. Now in the midst of
WWII, the Sergeant leads the four young men into battle. Besides Zab, there's
cartoonist Griff (Mark Hamill), the squad's best marksman who, shockingly, can't
hit a thing in their first engagement; the country boy Johnson (Kelly Ward); and
Italian Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco).
Once you accept that Fuller's movie will be bloodless, despite the fact that
people die by the hundreds, you'll be able to accept that the film is quite
good. Alas, audiences nowadays need to actually see blood splashing all over the
place to "get" that something bad has happened. For everyone else,
Fuller's movie can be enjoyed on many levels. Not only did Fuller wrote and
directed, but the movie is based on his own experiences as a rifleman in the Big
Red One during World War II. Needless to say, this fact gives the film
Even without the blood, "The Big Red One" is
still harrowing, with Fuller relying more on insinuation than actual depiction
of graphic violence. A sequence early on, when the unit is about to be overrun
by German tanks, comes to mind. In it, the soldiers are forced to dig into the
ground to hide from the tanks. Although hidden in their holes, the soldiers are
nevertheless subjected to the harsh weight of tanks as they roll on top of them;
all we hear is the dying screams of soldiers as tanks crush them in a flurry of
metal, engine fumes, and spraying dirt.
Another scene takes place in Sicily, where the squad is
forced to hide in a cave as a sea of Germans storm past them. Here, the squad
must perform a "relay", where one soldier shoots a German who has
wandered into the cave, while another soldier grabs the fallen body and pulls
him out of sight. The squad is forced to repeat the process for as long as it
takes, and the whole thing is shot with a wonderful sense of understatement, as
if this type of thing happens all the time. Of all the assignments performed by
the squad, their brief time in Italy provides the movie with most of its
emotional moments, including a sequence where the squad is forced to assault a
German position surrounded by female locals forced to work the fields as cover.
Although the film is a five-men ensemble piece, only three really stand out.
Veteran Lee Marvin adds the appropriate gruff and gravitas in the role of the
nameless Sergeant, who fights wars because he's good at it, but not because he
necessarily enjoys it. Mark Hamill, then coming off the mammoth success of
Wars", plays against type as the gunshy Griff, who spends half of the
film wondering if his own commanding officer will gun him down if he makes a run
for it. Griff has to come to terms with his own emotions, separating the line
between cowardice and a lack of desire to kill another human being. The film's
narrator is Robert Carradine ("Revenge
of the Nerds"), playing a cavalier cigar-chomping New Yorker who
provides the film its central core.
"The Big Red One" is not "Saving Private
Ryan". It's not about blood and guts, but rather death and life and
chances. It's about the young boys who have to fight wars because they're told
to, and the old men who still remember the last war with clarity, and isn't too
eager to jump back in. The film is very narrow-minded in its narrative, staying
within the tight confines of the five men and their immediate vicinity. This may
come across as episodic, but it's also very true. After all, what grunt can see
the whole war? It's just the gunfight right in front of them that matters; even
the gunfights you've survived seem lost in the haze.