THE BIG RED ONE “took the point” in 1980, writer-director Samuel Fuller returning after a decade’s absence to tell a story he’d been nursing since his real-life experience of living it, as a front-line soldier in Europe during World War Two. Though it wasn’t a box-office hit, it received critical approval. Over the years that morphed into praise, with many regarding the vivid, low-budget, “private epic” as a compact combat classic.
‘The Sergeant’ (Lee Marvin), a WW1 vet, leads a squad of young soldiers through three years and numerous campaigns in the Second World War, serving in the U.S. Army’s 1st Infantry Division. Replacements come and go, but the core members survive from the 1942 landing in North Africa, through Sicily, Italy, France and Belgium to their 1945 liberation of a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.
Fuller distilled 1,000 pages of notes he took during the war and thereafter into what was meant to be a large-scale $12,000,000 picture. The money men whittled that by 2/3 to $4,000,000, and apart from a tad done in Ireland, costly filming in Europe was nixed in favor of cheaper locations in Israel. Fuller’s first cut was four hours long, which wasn’t going to fly; it was lopped in half, pared to 113 minutes. It came in 98th place in the States, grossing $5,400,000 there, out of a total of $7,206,220 worldwide. Fuller died at 85 in 1997. Seven years later, film critic Richard Schickel oversaw a restoration effort for a “director’s cut” that not only reinserted 47 minutes for a running time of 160, but made the audacious choice to “update” the soundtrack by having the old-school sound effects replaced with what was deemed more accurate noise. Critics collapsed in gushing over-kill, with a lot of nonsensical “greatest war movie ever made” hooting.
We’re not a fan of the re-do (or the self-promoting Schickel), neither the reinstated material, or the dulled-down sound mix, which does a grade-A job of muffling dramatic impact. At least they didn’t fully futz with the music score (Dana Kaproff’s is pretty good) like what was done when the re-tweaked Major Dundee was given an awful new score to replace its familiar original. If you like the 160-minute 2004 cut, go for it: we’ll stick with the first one from 1980.
Marvin’s effective (if obviously too old at 54); the main clutch of young supporting G.I.s are well-played by Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine (representing Fuller), Bobby Di Cicco and Kelly Ward. Hamill’s surprisingly good. Like most Fuller pictures, it’s blunt and melodramatic, with some symbolism that’s on the heavy side, but it’s action-packed, with a number of memorable incidents. Budget constraints and choppiness to the side, it comes across with truth.
With Perry Lang, Siegfried Rauch (serving human-metaphor duty as German counterpart to Marvin) and Stéphan Audran (based on a real-life French Resistance daredevil).