Sam Fuller made a career of making tough, hard-edged movies that didn't venture far from film noir, war movies, and the occasional western. But before he ever got into movies, Fuller was an American infantry soldier in WWII. Late in his career, he wrote and directed a movie that told the story of his time in the army in the 1st Infantry Division, a movie with the unit's nickname as its title, 1980's The Big Red One. For years, the movie was only available in a heavily edited version that cut almost 50 minutes from Fuller's intended final cut. Now it is available as Fuller intended in a restored version that runs 163 minutes.
Where some movies ring false in their portrayal of soldiers in war, Fuller does his best to avoid that problem. It is a semi-biographical account of his experiences in the war as his squad survives the European theater of war. Some scenes ring true with an authenticity that only a real soldier could no, but surprisingly enough that authenticity isn't sustained through the whole movie. In trying to be too cute or too philosophical, Fuller's storytelling and narration become too cliched in an almost embarrassing way. So like any movie, there's the good and the bad, but I'm still wavering on how much I actually liked this movie.
It's 1942 and the American army is preparing to hit the beaches at North Africa. In the 1st Infantry Division, 16th Regiment, a soldier known only as the Sergeant (Lee Marvin) prepares to lead his squad into battle. The fight is a success, and the Allies continue their attacks throughout Africa and Europe as the war progresses. Four men, Zab (Robert Carradine), Griff (Mark Hamill), Johnson (Kelly Ward), and Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco), from the Sergeant's squad seem immune to getting hit or wounded, earning them the nickname 'Sergeant's Four Horsemen.' They fight across Africa and into Sicily, Italy, France and Germany, fighting in most of the ETO's major battles, including D-Day, Battle of the Bulge and many others. As the war looks to be drawing to a close, can these four survivors and their sergeant make it all the way through?
Telling a story that covers three-plus years and a never-ending sense of moving around, Fuller doesn't so much as tell a story as show a series of vignettes that show the everyday life of these soldiers; long periods of boredom and marching/camping broken up by quick, startling instances of horrific violence. Nothing wrong with that, but it can get a little tedious at times. The soldiers talk like soldiers do (obviously filtered/censored some), but at times it gets to be too much. Carradine's Zab provides the narration, and as good as it can be at times, it tries too hard to say something profound about war. The action is handled on a smaller scale and is effective enough, but like the dialogue and storytelling, it starts repeating itself and with 162 minutes, that leaves a lot of room for repeating.
Sometimes lost in that shuffle is the four privates that become known as the Sergeant's Four Horsemen. The only one to really distinguish himself from the rest is Hamill as Pvt. Griff, a sharpshooter who begins to freeze in combat. Fresh off the success of the first two Star Wars movies, Hamill makes his character interesting because as a viewer you can appreciate what he's going through. I'd be scared stiff to if I was getting shot at by complete strangers in a situation that makes little sense to the individual. The other three aren't quite as good. Carradine's narration is the best part about Zab who otherwise spends his time chomping on cigars. He tries to sound tough, but it's never believable. Ward and Di Cicco are cardboard cutouts of characters and never give us any reason to root for them. Some sort of background other than 'Johnson had hemorrhoids and Vinci was from Brooklyn' would have been nice too.
Making The Dirty Dozen, Marvin swooped in and took over a role intended for John Wayne. Same goes here as he steps into the shoes of the Sergeant after a version starring Wayne was brought up in the 1950s. A Marine in WWII who fought in the Pacific, Marvin is the best thing the movie has going for it. A little old maybe to play his character at 56, he still pulls the part off. He's tough, a strong leader and is going to do his best to get his men through the war unscathed. The choice to dub him solely 'the Sergeant' could have been a little pretentious on Fuller's part, but it works. During WWII, there were thousands of soldiers like Marvin's tough Sergeant, and in a lot of ways, Marvin is representing every single one of them. A little too old, sure, but Marvin was born to play a role like this.
Watching the movie with almost 50 minutes reinserted into the final cut certainly makes a difference, but at times it felt like a wasted opportunity. It's longer, but instead of seeing new, interesting things that develop the characters, we get tedious battle scenes that are still somehow too short. Certain moments ring true beautifully like Marvin's Sgt. carrying a young boy who survived a concentration camp, Johnson delivering a baby in a sweaty, cramped tank, the discovery of the concentration camp, and an honesty that seems to be missing from so many war movies. A good finished product, but it never lives up to its potential.
The Big Red One <---trailer (1980): ** 1/2 /****