Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Movie: The Big Red One (1980)

Reading Samuel Fuller’s memoirs a few weeks ago primed me to see the restored version of his WWII epic on the big screen. Which I was able to do this week thanks to the Northwest Film Forum. Critic and historian Richard Schickel supervised this new edit, which adds 45 minutes of footage. It’s as close as we’ll ever get to Fuller’s original vision; his dream cut ran four and a half hours.

Making this movie became an obsession with Fuller, so much so that he accepted the leanest of budgets. Like all great B-movie filmmakers, he turned the situation to his advantage. The sameness of the locations adds to the movie’s hallucinatory quality. Fuller shoots the action close-up and low to the ground, with the focus on the few feet – and sometimes the few inches – in front of his soldiers. His recreation of the D-Day invasion is a marvel of ingenuity. He may not have had the resources Steven Spielberg had on SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, but he’s every bit Spielberg’s equal when it comes to cunning and craft.

It’s a great, strange bird of a film. Some of Fuller’s more conventionally structured war dramas – like the Korea-set FIXED BAYONETS – may have more immediate impact. But this is obviously a reporter’s war movie, packed with detail. Fuller doesn’t bother to flesh out his quartet of soldiers or their sergeant, played by the great Lee Marvin, so there’s little here about the camaraderie forged in battle. None of the principals are killed, so the film isn’t really about loss. It’s simply a litany of bizarre and stupefying events that only men in war would see. Which is Fuller’s point. Ultimately THE BIG RED ONE is a movie about bearing witness, about coming home alive so that you can tell people about the insanity you were briefly a part of.