SAMUEL FULLER took the crew of his picture, The Big Red One, to Israel because the Judean Hills today look like the hills of Sicily during World War II. The Israelis cooperated. After all, an American film crew spends a lot of money and hires a lot of extras. Fuller needed extras to play Nazis, foils for his heroes, five musketeers who are members of the U. S. Army's First Infantry Division--the big red one. The Israeli extras unflinchingly donned the Nazi uniforms and marched beside panzers into the desert sun, prepared to die on cue.Fuller did a double-take during a break in the filming when he glanced at his extras and saw that they had discarded their heavy steel helmets. His grey-uniformed, swastika-decorated Nazis were lounging in the sun, their heads covered only by tiny yarmulkes.
When he tells this anecdote, Fuller loves to emphasize that the Israelis are survivors. This same heavy-handed irony slips into The Big Red One only in the final scene, when Fuller cannot restrain his narrator (Fuller himself, since the film is largely autobiographical) from underlining the message about survival. Fuller's credo is a realistic twist of the cliche of sportsmanlike competition: it's not whether you win or lose, it's whether you live or die.
The Big Red One tries to twist a number of other cliches of the was movie but it starts with a basic formula: a tough, leathery sergeant (Lee Marvin) who survived The First War returns to Europe leading a pack of good but green recruits against Hitler's huns. Mark Hamill is the soft-spoken hero with a streak of cowardice. Bobby DiCicco is the eyetalian who wants to open a bagel shop when he gets home. Kelly Ward is the quiet cartoonist who draws pictures when he's not drawing fire. And Robert Carradine is Sam Fuller, a scruffy, fast-talking writer from Brooklyn who lives on cigar smoke instead of oxygen.
They form a merry band (at headquarters, they're known as the Four Horsemen) and they move through every campaign in the Second World War--North Africa, Sicily, Normandy, Belgium, and finally a mop-up of the Eastern Front--without a scratch. While the wetnose replacements who join them for each campaign get shot to pieces, Marvin and his gang survive with a magical invincibility.
Fuller's film takes this standard structure and cleverly spices it with the right proportions of fancy and grit. It's neither anti-war nor prowar but a simple exposition of what it was like to go Over There and return home in one piece. It's painfully suspenseful and captures the exhilaration of battle nearly as effectively as the Ride of the Valkyries helicopter attack in Apocalypse Now. And despite his lack of subtlety, Fuller has a knack for mixing the hilarious with the sentimental.
EXCEPT FOR ITS ending, there are no weak links in The Big Red One, but three sequences stand out. Fuller's dramatization of the attack at Omaha Beach on D-Day begins as a personal affair. Unlike the 1962 epic The Longest Day, which featured a fleet of landing craft the size of a dozen Spanish Armadas ("Every dot on that screen is one of our boats...we're making history"), The Big Red One focuses of five men, none of whom want to be heroes, all of whom desperately want to live to see V-E Day.
But as they hit the beach and the dying begins anew, the fast talk quickly stops as Marvin begins to send his men, one by one, to blast a hole in the enemy wire. And one by one they die. It is a gruesome portrait of war, more horrible than the intellectualized horror of Apocalypse Now and more realistic than The Deer Hunter's chamber-spinning metaphor for horror. It more closely resembles Stanley Kubrick's evocation of the butchering sen-selessness of trench warfare in his anti-war film, Paths of Glory.
Later, an attack by Marvin's men on Nazis holed up in a Belgian insane asylum recalls the charming ballet of war in King of Hearts. Fuller's use of music and symbols is again heavy-handed and the sequence ends with a madman firing a machine gun with berserk glee and shouting, "I am sane, I am sane," but poetic camera movement and a sense of humor, even about death, make the scene more than just another "Who's-really-insane?" routine.
Fuller's boys manage to turn up everywhere that's anywhere in the war--we're almost surprised that they don't show up on the outskirts of Hiroshima in August, 1945--but a sequence inside a Nazi concentration camp is certainly not a Hollywood war movie cliche. And while Fuller's treatment of the episode is painfully simplistic, it is also simply painful. Hamill discovering a room of ovens filled with human skeletons, Marvin silently baring his heart to a little boy whom he has just liberated--these are moments that we have seen in other films; but Fuller's attempts at irony finally pay off, brushing away the tears with the same hand that jerked them.
The sequence in the concentration camp occurs on a bright, unclouded day, a detail that clashes with a common notion associating Hitler's victims with overcast skies. Fuller's vision is probably truer. He never shies away from color, and enjoys cutting from a crisp shot of blue sky and gold sand to the dull greys and greens of the infantryman's daily existence. Yet the colors never disappear; when there are no more flowers or there is no more blood, Fuller closes in on Lee Marvin's face, a rough-hewn palette of balanched hair, amber skin and watery eyes.
Marvin's performance is the best in a film full of good actors. He may be playing the hardened sergeant for the umpteenth time but his heart is finally in it. With his rumbling voice, he tosses off dialogue that a lesser actor would choke on. The paternal affection he bears his men never conflicts with his silent passion for killing the enemy and getting through the war alive. Hamill and the others are also nearly perfect--Carradine stands out because he has all the best lines--and Fuller leaves us wishing we knew more about his young heroes.
SAMUEL FULLER has been making war movies since the year the Second World War ended. In Hollywood, he became know as the King of the B's, a patriotic writer/director with a tin ear for dialogue but a sharp eye for combat detail. In 1950, he made America's first Korean War movie, The Steel Helmet, a popular cult film that was "Shot in 12 days. cost, $104,000. Locations: Griffith Park....a cardboard tank was painted, a pole slammed into its face for a gun....Twice the goddam cardboard tank fell on its face."
But Fuller's hardline anti-Commie stand lost favor after the McCarthy era. For nearly two decades, he has been noisily chomping his ever-present cigar in frustration, desperate to make the war film he always wanted to make, to prove that he had survived the roller-coaster life in Hollywood as well as the battles in Europe.
He even made plans to direct the first Vietnam feature, "Although it was written more than six years ago," he wrote to film historian Juliam Smith of his script, The Rifle, "it has all the ingredients of that flavor of war right up to the end--including a Calley flavor." His central character was "a symbol of war through generations--who ends up killing a Viet Cong boy--a boy he fell in love with--a boy he wanted to adopt and take back to the States--because the Army...commanded him to murder the civilian boy only because the boy represented the enemy."
In a way, The Big Red One is the best "Vietnam" film we have. The Americans who fought in Vietnam--more than any other war-quickly realized they were not fighting to win but to stay alive. Battle was no "John Wayne wet-dream," as Michael Herr called it in his Vietnam account, Dispatches. Even Fuller's narrator comments that the army doesn't award medals for protecting civilians but for killing Germans; in Vietnam, a high bodycount signalled victory. It is this attitude to survival that enables The Big Red One to bridge the gap between America's most glorious and most dishonorable wars.
But like World War II itself, The Big Red One is somehow more accessible than the Vietnam War as portrayed in Apocalypse Now and even more personal than the achingly personal story of The Deer Hunter. There are good guys and bad guys and there is a line, however thin, between killing and murdering. Through the entire war, Marvin and his men stubbornly survive, eerily recalling the words of Coppola's Colonel Kilgore: "Someday, this war's gonna end....