Back in 1918, the day the First World War had ended, an American soldier (Lee Marvin) was wandering No Man's Land, pondering where his Army unit had got to, when he heard the sound of approaching hoofbeats and suddenly a horse was bearing down on him, driven crazy by the horrors of the conflict. It broke his rifle and continued on into the distance, whereupon he heard another sound: a German voice belonging to an enemy soldier. What the American didn't know was there was no need to kill him, but kill him he did, and when he got back to the trenches, he had time to think over his error - was it killing or murder?
The Big Red One was writer and director Samuel Fuller's dream project for the best part of thirty years, maybe longer, based around his experiences in the American First Infantry, also known by the nickname which made up the title. It was his intention to show that the glory of war was not in those unlucky enough to die, but in those lucky enough to survive, not that the dead went unmourned here, far from it, but simply the act of getting through this nightmare was enough reason to celebrate the men who fought in the Second World War. Originally, Fuller wanted a completely immersive film lasting four and a half hours, but he was persuaded to cut it down to a more manageable length of just under two.
Yet the nagging feeling among cineastes that there had been a better movie in there before the studio imposed their edits never left the project, and therefore almost twenty-five years later a cut more in keeping with what the producers thought Fuller wanted was released. Did this clear up the problems which many had had with the film? Well, not really, because if you'd lost patience with the signature Fuller style at under two hours, all the restored version offered you was more of the same, not any more depth, but a lot more breadth. On the other hand, if this had appealed to you in the first place, then you may well have welcomed more to get your teeth into, and certainly more of Marvin's performance as the grizzled Sergeant, one of those career soldiers who continually refused promotion, was all to the good.
Marvin's character, just called "The Sergeant", leads a group of new recruits into warfare, initially in Algeria where they fight the German and Italian forces in 1942, and out of those young men, basically boys, a core of about four faces endure throughout the conflict (including Mark Hamill straight from Star Wars and Robert Carradine as Fuller's stand-in). For this reason, their endurance, we're supposed to admire them, and both actors and director did a solid job of keeping them callow enough to be believable as the rookies they begin as, and to an extent continue to be even as the terrors of combat wear at their nerves. It's only at the end, where they discover the enormity of the Holocaust as they liberate a death camp in Czechoslovakia, that the hope for the future turns to a bone deep cynicism about human nature - even the Sergeant is suitably harrowed.
Yet even then there's that survival factor: they got through this so it has to be made to mean something and because the Nazis and their sympathisers gave up their humanity to try to wipe out great swathes of that humankind, there is a note sounded at the end that states we should not descend to that level in our battle to ensure the world never gets so bad again. For this reason, there's a tenor to the film which seems to be indebted to the "realistic" World War II movies actually made during the conflict such as A Walk in the Sun or The Story of G.I. Joe, and you could view Fuller's approach as outdated for 1980 when it was finally made. What helps is his insistence on emphasising the bizarre nature of the situation, whether it's darkly amusing (the Sergeant's reaction to one recruit's testicle blown off by a mine) or weirdly life-affirming (the little girl who adorns his helmet with flowers, the birth scene); stuff like this is so out there it just had to be based in reality, and indeed it was. So if The Big Red One rambled there was purpose to its accumulation of detail. Music by Dana Kaproff.
Pioneering independent director, best known for his tough 60s thrillers. Fuller began his career in Hollywood in the mid-1930s, and after a spell in the army and many frustrated years as a writer, directed his first film in 1949, the Western I Shot Jesse James. Fuller's third film, The Steel Helmet, was the first movie to deal with the Korean war and was a huge success. Other films Fuller made in the 50s include Pickup on South Street, House of Bamboo and Run of the Arrow.
The 1960s saw Fuller deliver dark, ground-breaking thrillers like Underworld USA, Shock Corridor and the infamous The Naked Kiss, which divided critics with their mix of melodrama and brutal realism. Fuller subsequently found it hard to find employment in Hollywood and largely worked as an actor throughout the 70s. The 1980 war movie The Big Red One was something of a comeback, but his next film, the anti-racist White Dog caused yet more controversy, and it has rarely been seen in its intended form. Fuller's final feature was the 1989 crime drama Street of No Return, although he worked in TV until the mid-90s. Died in 1997 aged 86.