Film School: The Big Red One

Subscriber Exclusive

Movies Features Samuel Fuller
Film School: The Big Red One

Welcome to Film School! This is a column focused on movie history and all the stars, filmmakers, events, laws and, yes, movies that helped write it. Film School is a place to learn—no homework required.

It’s easy to understand why war movies came naturally to me. I was one of a handful of Hollywood people with battlefield experience. I used my firsthand knowledge to create films that, I hope, showed the truth about people at war. It would be hypocritical to deny that, as crazy, violent, and tragic as it is, war lends itself to filmmaking by stirring up the entire palette of our deepest feelings. Samuel Fuller, A Third Face

Sam Fuller had been preparing to make The Big Red One for most of his life. 

In WWII, as part of a division known as “The Big Red One” (thanks to their distinctive insignia), Fuller was involved in heavy fighting on multiple fronts, and won a chest full of medals for his service. Fuller was at the liberation of Falkenau concentration camp, and took footage there that would become a vital historical document

Though he had worked in multiple genres, it was the war movie that Fuller kept coming back to; films like The Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets!, Verboten! (Fuller’s movies lent themselves to titular exclamation points) and Merrill’s Marauders had given him the well-earned reputation as a director unafraid of depicting war honestly, in a way completely devoid of platitudinous, empty patriotism.

The Big Red One had languished in development hell for over 20 years by the time it hit theaters. It was nearly made in the late 1950s as a Warner Bros. production, with John Wayne in the lead role that would ultimately go to Lee Marvin, but Fuller considered Wayne a bad fit for the anti-heroic tale he was trying to tell (he’d also put the kibosh on Wayne starring in 1951’s The Steel Helmet for the same reason). A shot at Paramount was felled by the departure of studio head Frank Yablans. Later attempts were thwarted by a reluctance from any studio to put up the (fairly modest) budget that Fuller was after. Eventually, in large part thanks to the shepherding of Peter Bogdanovich, The Big Red One was released in July 1980.

Fuller’s movie charts the travails of the five-man unit between 1942 and 1945, seeing Privates Griff (Mark Hamill), Vinci (Bobby di Cicco), Zab (Robert Carradine) and Johnson (Kelly Ward), and their unnamed Sergeant (Lee Marvin) fight their way across Europe and North Africa, bonding as they deal with the fear and uncertainty that haunt their every waking minute. The men are joined by various new recruits along the way, but they are usually dead before the five stalwarts have bothered to learn their names.

“Every frame of my picture would be based on firsthand knowledge,” Fuller said of The Big Red One in his autobiography A Third Face. And you can feel the bloody metal tang of truth in so many of the little details and memorable moments throughout, like the soldiers holding in their screams until the noisy tanks roll over the foxholes where they are hiding, and the wristwatch on a severed arm drifting on a sea darkening with blood. Many (including Roger Ebert) have opined that the film’s brutal D-Day sequence must have been a considerable influence on Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Though he’s not on record as saying so, Spielberg is certainly a fan, having cast Fuller in a cameo in 1941, and borrowed the nickname “Short Round” from The Steel Helmet to use on a little Ke Huy Quan in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

While Fuller was able to see off John Wayne’s involvement, he actively sought the casting of another, recently minted megastar. The Big Red One was the first major feature Mark Hamill embarked upon after Star Wars (lackluster comedy Corvette Summer notwithstanding). His willingness to sign up for a movie where he was just another part of an ensemble, not number one on the call sheet, proved a surprise to both Fuller and Hamill himself; while he isn’t the headline actor here, his pivotal scene at the concentration camp—where the discovery of a still-smoldering oven changes his previously pacifistic stance in an instant—is one of the movie’s most searing.

Fuller’s original cut of his epic ran four hours long—the version that hit theaters was a little less than half that, and Fuller had nothing to do with the final edit. The theatrical cut was well received, and maintains a rugged majesty, but watching today it’s clear that something is missing. Episodes along the way often feel fragmentary, there’s a voiceover that smacks of being a last-minute studio addition, and the only soldier we ever really get to know on a deep level is the great Lee Marvin. Happily, Marvin in top form is enough to make up for much of the studio-imposed damage of the theatrical version.

Like Fuller, Marvin was a WWII veteran, and used his experience to help the younger actors out with the technicalities of their performances. Marvin was 54 when The Big Red One was shot, and could have passed for ten years older. Many contemporaneous critics posited that he was too old for the role, and while this was technically true (the upper age limit for U.S. combat roles during WWII was 51), Marvin’s advanced age, especially when contrasted with the interchangeable young pups he’s serving alongside, speaks viscerally to the exhaustion of war, and the endlessness of it. 

Although there’s all the granite-hewn grit you’d expect from a Lee Marvin performance in a Sam Fuller production (one of the rare “lighter” moments sees Marvin jovially reassure a man who’s just had a testicle blown off: “You can live without it—that’s why they gave you two!”), he makes us see that all these years have both toughened and tenderized him. Fuller injects several scenes of Marvin interacting with small kids; without a hint of mawkishness, he delicately, sometimes devastatingly, shows us the gentle heart buried deep beneath the Sergeant’s gruff exterior. In a movie rendered somewhat disjointed by studio meddling, Marvin provides The Big Red One its rock-solid emotional throughline. 

In 2004, seven years after Fuller’s death, a team lead by Peter Bogdanovich and critic Richard Schickel used archival material and Fuller’s original shooting script to recut The Big Red One, bringing the runtime up to around two hours and 40 minutes. The Reconstruction, as this version was known, restores deleted characters, adds whole sequences and lengthens existing ones. Although, as Schickel stated in an interview with the DGA, “We’ll never know exactly what [Fuller’s] directors’ cut would have looked like,” The Reconstruction makes the film into a more cohesive, satisfying whole. A happy ending, after all those many, many years.

Back in 1980, Fuller had just one movie left to make in America; arguably the most provocative, controversial work of his entire career. Next week: White Dog.

Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin