By Tim Pelan
In Hollywood, personal films can often become bloated vanity projects. With Samuel Fuller’s semi-autobiographical WWII memoir, The Big Red One, there is nothing vain or glorious about the events portrayed therein. Fuller’s onscreen words at the beginning baldly state “This is fictional life, based on factual death.” The film tells the story of a grizzled sergeant, a WWI veteran, and his wetnoses, also known as “The Four Horsemen (of the Apocalypse).” It details their campaigns across North Africa, Italy, France, Belgium, Germany and Czechoslovakia, in an alternately picaresque, surreal and horrific manner. Fuller was 30 when he joined up, a successful newspaperman on the crime beat, cartoonist, and just published author of The Dark Page, a pulp mystery. He had a flair for the dramatic—mentored by an old hand, he was told, “If the guy ends up frying in the chair at Sing Sing, then write it so strong that the reader can smell his flesh burning.” He could have been a war correspondent, but chose to serve in a rifle company in the 1st Infantry Division, the “Big Red One.” He had a writer’s nose for a story, and he certainly got plenty of material at the sharp end. Like the unit in his screenplay, his first taste of action was hitting the Algerian beachhead as part of Operation Torch against Vichy French troops. He recalled in his book A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking: “I found myself eyeball to eyeball with my first vision of the horror of war. One of our guys was hit with a mortar charge and blown apart, his head severed from his body. It landed near me. I had a close-up view of a shocked face, his bulging eyes full of fear and surprise. I’d seen a lot of corpses in the City morgues, so I didn’t turn away. I stared, hypnotized by the soldier’s head, almost forgetting where I was. The shell bursts snapped me out of it. To this day, the first face of death is imprinted on me like a fossil, never to fade away.”
Fuller had no time for Hollywood “phony heroics.” Warner Brothers head Daryl F. Zanuck offered him a lot of big war films to direct—Fuller turned down The Longest Day and Patton, amongst others. He was offered money to do The Big Red One if he would cast John Wayne as the Sergeant. Although he admired Wayne, he didn’t feel he was right for it, and waited. Although he wrote the script in 1958, it would not be until 1979 when he got to begin filming it the way he wanted, with Lorimar Productions, for a shoestring budget of $4 million (the film was released in a truncated form in 1980). “It took a little while to get off the ground,” he recalled wryly to Roger Ebert at the Cannes premiere. He shot on location in Big Bear National Park in America for the snowy Belgian scenes, around John Boorman’s castle in Co. Meath, Ireland, and mostly Israel for the African and Sicily sections. His original (working print?) cut of around four hours was chopped to under two by the studio, with scant regard for logic or cohesion, leaving it a disjointed curio. Richard Schickel and Brian Jamieson of Warner Brothers, who acquired the rights after Lorimar went bankrupt, later began a restoration process after a long campaign by Fuller’s widow Crista. On a budget of $1/2 million, they tracked down 90 minutes of footage, 50 minutes of which made it back into the cut, based on Fuller’s notes, to create a stronger, more confident and emotional narrative, in The Big Red One: The Reconstruction.
Lee Marvin was always in line to play the sergeant, a gruff professional with a dry sense of humor buried somewhere deep. Like Fuller, Marvin was a war veteran, a marine in the Pacific theatre. “Fuller and Marvin communicated in a shorthand which none of us understood,” Robert Carradine, who plays Zab, one of the squad, recalled. “Sometimes Lee would bum a cigar from Sam. They were comrades in arms. They fought the same war. They could say more with a look than the rest of us could say in a whole conversation.” He told Roger Ebert The Dirty Dozen was “a dummy money-maker.” From Ebert’s review: “This is Marvin’s picture, and he dominates it not with heroics and speechmaking but with competence, patience, realism, and a certain tender sadness.” The Big Red One was something special to him, too, a chance to tell it right.
There is no mawkishness, no prescient insight into strategic overview, like Saving Private Ryan’s ridiculous discussion between Tom Hanks and Ted Danson about Monty’s race to break out first from Normandy. There’s just you, and the men beside you. In the Reconstruction, we first find the Sergeant lost on the deserted battlefield of WWI (shot in stark black and white). A shell-shocked horse nearly tramples him, before a German soldier stumbles across him. The Sergeant stabs him, only later realizing the man was trying to surrender, four hours after the armistice. The guilt haunts him deep down. This scene is referenced in the opening to David Ayer’s 2014 war film Fury: an arrogant German officer on a white horse trots carelessly past Brad Pitt’s seemingly damaged tank, before Pitt leaps upon him and kills him with a blade. Griff, the marksman in the sergeant’s WWII squad, is unable to shoot a man so close “you could kiss him on both cheeks.” Later, framed by a brick arch, he tells the Sergeant “I can’t murder anybody.” “We don’t murder, we kill,” the Sergeant rationalizes to himself as much as Griff. The slightest downturn in his eyes shows he doesn’t swallow his own lie. Toward the end of the film, Griff is again framed by a brick arch, this time filmed from the point of view of a concentration camp guard hiding in one of the ovens used to dispose of the prisoners. Griff raises his rifle and pumps round after round into him and the camera POV. The Sergeant hands him a fresh clip and murmurs “You got him.” No shirt tearing, no impassioned speeches—can a war crime warrant murder? Fuller refuses to cut away from Griff—he wants the audience to feel the sense of disquiet.
“The movie is maybe 20 percent my story,” Fuller told Ebert. “But the character based on me, played by Bobby Carradine, isn’t nearly as vicious as I really was. The other 80 percent is a composite of dogfaces I knew, fought beside, witnessed, heard about or dreamed up. Lee Marvin was terrific to work with, playing the sergeant. He wanted to make the movie from the moment he heard about it. I love the son of a bitch… even though he was a marine.”
The Four Horsemen each crudely reflect aspects of Fuller’s personality. They are: Zab (Robert Carradine) the cigar-chomping, “Hemingway of the Bronx”—his “The Dark Deadline” is based on Fuller’s first book; Griff (Mark Hamill) conscience-stricken marksman and cartoonist; Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco) wise-ass Sicilian; and Johnson (Kelly Ward) corn-bred all-American, innocent and hemorrhoid-plagued, a rubber ring always near to hand. Peppered throughout their travels are various “replacements” who come and go. As the film progresses, Zab narrates: “By now we had come to see our replacements as dead men who temporarily had the use of their arms and legs.” Farcical humor and horniness sit side by side with the grim realities of war, often in the same scene. The Sergeant consoles a man who has just been injured in the groin by a mine. “It’s just one of your balls, Smitty. You can live without it (winks to the others). That’s why they gave you two!” To add insult to injury he casually flips it over his shoulder.
At one point the Sergeant, Griff and Johnston memorably deliver a baby inside a tank, the ammo belts used as stirrups, condoms on their fingers as makeshift gloves. Johnson urges the mother to “pousser,” making it sound like a certain part of her anatomy he can’t help staring at. “Sarge,” he laughs, “I’m gettin’ horny!” Dug in somewhere for the night, the men listen to the sultry tones of Axis Sally urging them to quit. Zab tells Johnson, rolling against him, “That’s not my gun.”
There is grimmer humor too. Zab explains in narration that to smoke out a sniper “you send a guy out into the open to see if they get shot. They thought that one up at West Point.” When a sniper is discovered to be a Hitler Youth, the guys are ready to follow general orders and kill him. The Sergeant shames them all into refusing to do so, before putting the boy over his knee and spanking him until he cries for his Pappi. He’s just a boy, for all the poison poured into him by the state.
The limited budget and production values, such as Sherman tanks redressed as Panzers, also led to the film being unfairly dismissed until the Reconstruction brought back a sense of cohesion and tight focus within the wider action. There was a dangerous illusion of realism though, as he told Ebert. “With a movie like The Big Red One, when a guy has his ass hit by flying fragments, you get the message. And I worked with British special effects guys on this movie, so we got great flying shrapnel. In the U.S., it’s against the law to use TNT or dynamite for your explosions in a movie. We shot in Israel, where they never heard of that law.”
“The movie is very simple. It’s a series of combat experiences, and the times of waiting in between. Lee Marvin plays a carpenter of death. The sergeants of this world have been dealing death to young men for 10,000 years. He’s a symbol of all those years and all those sergeants, no matter what their names were or what they called their rank in other languages. That’s why he has no name in the movie.”
The Normandy Beach landing may not have the visceral scale of Saving Private Ryan’s Omaha assault, but it economically intersperses various close-ups, including the Sergeant sending man after man out to blow a gap in the wire with the Bangalore torpedo. When Griff takes his turn and wavers, pinned down by enemy fire, the Sergeant snipes at him also. They stare at each other grimly, before Griff pushes on. They are just cogs in the machine. Intercut with this is a brilliant shot of a dead man’s wristwatch lying in the increasingly bloody surf, watch hands sweeping on relentlessly upon his corpse, underscoring the grueling nature of the assault. Zab is sent to tell a superior their section is open. He falls upon a dead man, guts hanging out, and relieves him of his helmet and cigar.
The restored, surreal episode where the G.I.’s fight Germans in a convent used as a mental hospital echoes Fuller’s earlier brilliant expose, Shock Corridor. A patient lifts a machine gun and sprays away, a manic grin on his face. “Now I am sane!” When French Colonial troops cut the ears from dead foes in a Reconstruction Roman amphitheater Tunisian battle, it evokes the gruesome habits of certain combatants in Vietnam, the setting also underlying the endless cyclical nature of conflict. “Still, maybe we were all lucky to fight when we did,” Fuller recalled to Ebert. “In the old days, if you came to the king and told him the battle was lost, you got beheaded. If I had been the guy who had to break the bad news to Tamburlaine, I woulda gone in and said, ‘Uh… I’m terribly sorry, sir, and I don’t want to get into the details…’” The only room for sympathy is for the poor children caught in the crossfire, another major element restored to the improved cut. When they liberate the death camp, the Sergeant stoically carries a frail boy on his shoulders along a peaceful river bank until the life ebbs out of his emaciated body.
Like Saving Private Ryan, the film that possibly contributed to a renewed interest in The Big Red One, it has redemptive bookends. In a tragic irony, the Sergeant repeats his error from the start of the film, stabbing his German counterpart Schroeder in the act of surrendering. Was he thinking of the dead boy, the ovens? When the squad advise him Germany has already surrendered and they discover the man is still breathing, the Sergeant fights to save his life. Zab observes they had more in common with him than all the replacements that died along the way. Amidst all the bizarre, crazy cruelty they have encountered, “the real glory of war is surviving.”
Written by Tim Pelan. Tim was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »
Here’s a rarity: Samuel Fuller’s screenplay for The Big Red One [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
Mark Hamill interviewed on the set of The Big Red One.
Mark Hamill and Lee Marvin being interviewed about The Big Red One.
“A film on the great American film director, Samuel Fuller: The Typewriter, the Rifle & the Movie Camera (1996) is narrated by Tim Robbins, and with the participation of Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, and Martin Scorsese, the documentary proves to be a fantastic search into Samuel Fuller’s films, his approach to filmmaking, and the art of cinema itself. Fuller is a machine that drops gem after gem as he speaks about film and how he writes with the camera. Though he may not be well-remembered among recent generations, his influence stretches well across film history. Martin Scorsese even confesses that he used a scene from Fuller’s The Steel Helmet for Raging Bull—and so it is more than worthwhile to see this documentary, especially as it depicts a filmmaker who easily crosses the line between Independent filmmaking and Hollywood studio moviemaking. The documentary itself is divided in three parts. ‘The Typewriter’ focuses on Fuller’s past, his early career as a copy boy made crime reporter, while ‘The Rifle’ portrays Fuller’s experiences as a soldier in World War II. Finally, ‘The Movie Camera’ follows Fuller the director. The Typewriter, the Rifle & the Movie Camera is a great watch for anyone wanting to learn from a master filmmaker!” —Edwin Adrian Nieves, A-BitterSweet-Life
In Richard Schickel’s The Men Who Made the Movies: Sam Fuller (2002), the great Sam Fuller discusses his philosophy about filmmaking, life experiences, specific films and key scenes in his movies.
It’s been said that if you don’t like the Rolling Stones, then you just don’t like rock and roll. By the same token, I think that if you don’t like the films of Sam Fuller, then you just don’t like cinema. Or at least you don’t understand it. Sure, Sam’s movies are blunt, pulpy, occasionally crude. But those aren’t shortcomings. They’re simply reflections of his temperament, his journalistic training, and his sense of urgency. His pictures are a perfect reflection of the man who made them. Every point is underlined, italicized, and boldfaced, not out of crudity but out of passion. And outrage—Fuller found a lot to be outraged about in this world. For the man who made Forty Guns or Underworld U.S.A. or Pickup on South Street or Park Row, there was no time for mincing words. There’s a great deal of sophistication and subtlety in those movies, and it’s all at the service of rendering emotion on-screen. When you respond to a Fuller film, what you’re responding to is cinema at its essence. Motion as emotion. Fuller’s pictures move convulsively, violently. Just like life when it’s being lived with genuine passion. —Martin Scorsese
In the video below, Cinéma Cinémas: Samuel Fuller.
So for the benefit of all the young men who want to make a picture, always be in a position to control what you want because you never get another chance. You can not alibi. You can’t say later, when the picture is out, “Oh, I wanted to do this, I wanted to do that.” Do what you have to do when you do it. And if it stinks, you take the blame. And if it’s successful, if they like it, and especially if it makes money, you take all the praise. With drinks of course. —Samuel Fuller
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One. Photographed by Laurel Moore, Yoni Hamenachem & Micha Bar Am © Lorimar Productions, Lorac Productions, United Artists. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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