A World War II infantryman who landed in North Africa, Sicily, and Normandy, and was wounded twice, the late director-writer Samuel Fuller loathed what he called “phony heroics.” Fuller, who turned down opportunities to direct The Longest Day and Patton, maintained that it was impossible to show combat on the screen—unless, perhaps, one were to “fire real shots over the audience’s head [and] have actual casualties in the theater.”
There’s a sense in which all of Fuller’s fabulously blunt and dynamic movies are about war. But his oeuvre does include four remarkable and provocative examples of the combat genre: the Korean War scoops The Steel Helmet (1951) and Fixed Bayonets (1951), the mutilated but gruelingly effective Burma roadster Merrill’s Marauders (1962), and his autobiographical labor of love, The Big Red One (1980). The latter is a movie that, once he nixed the idea of a John Wayne vehicle, Fuller struggled for decades to make. In the late ’70s, Peter Bogdanovich miraculously persuaded first Paramount and then the short-lived indie studio Lorimar to take the project.
Shot for an extremely modest $4 million and released in a severely edited version, the movie was a disappointment; in his memoirs, Fuller was still dreaming of his original four-hour cut, which he imagined residing in a Hollywood vault after Warner Bros. acquired the rights. Richard Schickel’s restoration, shown at Cannes and in the New York Film Festival, isn’t that particular holy grail, but it does add nearly an hour to the release version.
“Fictional life based on factual death,” per Fuller’s hard-boiled formulation, The Big Red One recounts the combat as a series of grotesque (or grotesquely corny) adventures in which Lee Marvin’s stoic god of war leads a platoon of callow recruits through the carnage. In one Fullerian gag, Marvin is briefly captured and smooched by a Nazi doctor, who exclaims, “I adore supermen!” Hate merges with love as the enemy is personalized. In another, a half-dozen avid soldiers deliver a baby in a tank—a sort of benign gang bang that makes far too much out of the coincidence that poussez (push) sounds like “pussy.”
Given its strikingly abstract Omaha Beach sequence, if not the comic battle in a lunatic asylum, many have bracketed The Big Red One with Saving Private Ryan. Indeed, with impressive sleight of hand, Spielberg managed to evoke the inspirational rhetoric of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 D-Day pageant while channeling Fuller’s battle-hardened brutalism—not The Big Red One so much as Fixed Bayonets and Merrill’s Marauders.
The Big Red One is certainly a testament to Fuller’s tenacity, but recent raves notwithstanding, it’s no masterpiece. The performances can be execrable and the timing is off; the movie suffers from its low budget, but even more from the self-consciousness that afflicted Fuller’s work after Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street. (The real gem of his late career is the astonishing White Dog, made the following year.) The Big Red One isn’t even Fuller’s greatest war film. Of those, I’d rank it fourth—but that’s not half bad.