(USA 1980/2004 163m) DVD1/2
p Gene Corman d/w Samuel Fuller ph Adam Greenberg ed Morton Tubor m Dana Kaproff art Peter Jamison
Lee Marvin (Sergeant), Mark Hamill (Griff), Robert Carradine (Zab), Kelly Ward (Johnson), Bobby DiCicco (Vinci), Siegfried Rauch (Schroeder), Stéphane Audran (Walloon), Serge Marquand (Ransonnet), Alain Douley (Broban), Charles Macaulay (General),
Of the various director cameos in the work of Jean-Luc Godard, one stands out above all; that of Samuel Fuller in Pierrot le Fou. At a random party, populated by pseudo-intellectuals and topless women, Jean-Paul Belmondo’s character asks Fuller, smoking his surgically attached stogie, what his definition of cinema is. After a moment’s thought, Fuller replies “a film is like a battleground; love, hate, action, violence, death. In one word, emotion.” Never was that truer than here, in Fuller’s labour of love from 1980. This film literally is a battleground, and a very personal one, as it charts the story, give or take a few liberties, of Fuller’s own tour of duty in World War II in the First Infantry Division, marked by the titular red insignia.
The film begins in flashback at the armistice of 1918 – the significance of which later becomes doubly apparent – before jumping ahead to find Lee Marvin’s soldier with greyed hair and fighting in another conflict. It’s now 1942 in North Africa, and the battle against Rommel. Marvin’s Sergeant has a small troupe who slowly get whittled down to just four as they go from campaign to campaign, through the invasion of Italy in 1943, D-Day in Normandy and later in Belgium and Germany in 1944 before, finally, liberating a Czechoslovakian concentration camp in 1945.
Fuller had made several impressive films before – The Steel Helmet, Pickup on South Street, Verboten!, Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss – but there can be no doubt that this most episodic and personal of films, made when he was pushing seventy, is his masterpiece, with over forty minutes of crucial footage restored. It turns an impressive but fractured and flawed war film into one of the last great films of the genre, worthy of comparison for both its heightened action sequences and its moments of quiet contemplation. Fuller’s war films always dumped you right into the heart of things, and The Big Red One is a definitive case. Take the Normandy landings; they may not have the virtual reality hell of Saving Private Ryan, but it’s an altogether more touching sequence, and still sealed with unquestioned authenticity from an actual veteran. Fuller never pulled any punches in his films, but here he allows a touch of rumination and symbolism, as in the motif of the wrist watch on a fallen soldier gradually red coloured by the blood washed up against the beach. It, and indeed the entire film, is summed up when one commanding officer exclaims “there are two kinds of men on this beach; those that are dead and those that are about to die.” Ne’er a truer statement on the futility of war was spoken. To Fuller, echoed in the final line in the film, the only glory in war was surviving, and his film shows as ably as any other the real lottery of such glory.
Visually Fuller keeps it deliberately muted, though he’s helped by his DP, who refuses to prettify things and shows himself a master of action cinematography (no wonder James Cameron used Greenberg on his Terminator films). Performance wise, all the youngsters do well, with the lesser known Carradine brother substituting for Fuller himself, but this is very much Marvin’s show. He has sequences here as powerful and as touching as anything he’s ever done, with special mention to the scene with a small boy he’s liberated from the concentration camp, carrying him on his back. Put simply, it might be Marvin’s finest performance. For Fuller, its restoration is a vindication of his methods. As David Thomson wrote, it is “an immaculate study of frailty and courage in the infantry, a film made as if the Second World War had ended ten minutes ago.”