Samuel 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 authenticity.
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 “Star 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.
Samuel Fuller (director) / Samuel Fuller (screenplay)
CAST: Lee Marvin …. The Sergeant
Mark Hamill …. Griff
Robert Carradine …. Zab
Bobby Di Cicco …. Vinci
Kelly Ward …. Johnson