You walk into a room, take a seat and, when the lights go down, you are whisked away to a place where, for a few hours, you live someone else’s life. You are at the movies and, regardless of the genre, the experience is a journey with the moving camera as both your eyes and ears. This metaphorical expedition is an amazing wonder of modern technology and creativity, but for certain noteworthy films and filmmakers the journey is much more than metaphor.
Starting today, the Brattle will be screening The Big Red One, a film whose on- and off-screen lives have been defined by long, eventful, and obstacle-ridden journeys. Inspired by writer/director Samuel Fuller’s personal experiences as a soldier in World War II, this movie is not only one of the most comprehensive depictions of the seemingly never ending physical and emotional marathon that makes up soldiers’ lives. The film’s own genesis comprises quite a long and tortured journey in of itself.
Samuel Fuller is best-known for making hard-boiled, melodramatic, semi-autobiographical genre films that draw on his own ample personal life experience. By the age of 29, Fuller was an aspiring filmmaker, a promising pulp novelist, and a seasoned crime journalist. Fuller’s experiences show a man defined by wanderlust, an evaluation supported by his justification for enlisting to fight in World War II. “I had a helluva opportunity to witness the biggest crime story of the century, and nothing was going to stop me from being an eyewitness,” he said.
Fuller was on a quest for inspiration and-—during his four year war experience—that was exactly what he found. What this inspiration led him to do was make was The Big Red One, a World War II epic film whose lifetime journey reflects its creator’s in both relative length and drama. Although Fuller first conceived of it in 1959, the final version of the film is only gracing the big screen this year, seven years after Fuller’s death.
Over the past half-century, Fuller’s movies have garnered much more critical appreciation than they ever did during their theatrical releases. Although not exactly B-movies—VES and English Professor J.D. Connor ’92 describes them as “A-minus movies”—they were frequently dismissed in their own time as being excessively provocative and tabloid. In retrospect, however, it is clear that it was exactly this aspect of Fuller’s style that served as a strong influence for contemporary filmmakers like Martin Scorcese and Quentin Tarantino and for the French New Wave, for whom he was a hero of Hitchcock’s stature.
In spite of their often sensationalist violence and drama, Fuller’s films are steeped in historical context and critique. In fact, it was this tabloid quality to his films that empowered and qualified his criticism. “He was a filmmaker who displayed the conflict in classical American liberalism in the starkest possible form,” says Connor, referring to the harsh journalistic style of Fuller’s classic 1953 film noir Pickup on South Street.
In addition to being one of the most important and cutting-edge examples of 1950s film noir, Pickup highlights the disparity and paradox between the two most prominent American values of the time: individual ambition and blindly patriotic anti-Communism. In one of the film’s most potent moments, the police threateningly ask the protagonist if he knows what treason is, to which he responds with “Who cares?” Released in the year of the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg executions, Pickup is rife with political daring, both endangering and enabling Fuller’s career as a filmmaker.
Although the movie follows a fairly classic formula, Fuller’s craftsmanship subverts and redefines studio confines. Pickup on South Street depicts a realistically dark world of both vice and unchecked sentimentality and, in this respect, his 1980 film The Big Red One was a masterful encapsulation of his life-long thematic obsessions. Or, rather, it would have been.
His most personal work, The Big Red One mirrors Fuller’s own experience in World War II. We travel with the First Infantry Division—identified by the big red number One emblazoned on the shoulder of their uniforms—as they battle and endure their way from Africa all the way to Czechoslovakia.
The story focuses on the division’s nameless sergeant—played by a tough as nails Lee Marvin, in what is generally recognized as his finest performance—and four of his privates, who include the former Jedi Knight Mark Hamill, as they struggle to make it through every battle while anonymous reinforcements die beside them just as suddenly and quickly as they appear. The movie is a tale of war as a journey of neither glory nor honor, but rather of survival. Instead of to heroism, the soldiers aspire—as Fuller himself put it—“to live, live, live.”
In between battle sequences—including the most faithful representation of the D-Day invasion to predate the production of Saving Private Ryan—the movie is filled with subtle touches of style and storytelling that embody Fuller’s trademark humanistic bent. The film presents the enemy soldiers as strikingly similar to the Americans balancing the brutality and horror of the war, to create what New York Times film critic A.O. Scott calls “a messy, muscular masterpiece.”
In a manner that supersedes all his other works, right and wrong do not factor into the logic of this film. Instead, it confronts head on the major paradox of American wartime mentality: the exalted value of the individual in contrast to the bottom-line importance of the greater good.
World War II veterans lauded Steven Spielberg for his chaotically realistic representation of the storming of Omaha Beach. Fuller was a veteran of that invasion himself, and he strove for something other than purely visual realism. Like Spielberg, he was working to convey the brutality of war but, as Connor explains, “unlike in Saving Private Ryan, it was never an exercise in verisimilitude but rather an exercise in filmmaking.” A master of the overstatement, Fuller’s abrupt humor, drama, and violence serve as a means—not an end—towards presenting a more personal and truthful account of World War II.
However, this movie has been a long time coming. First proposed in 1959 as a big-budget feature film starring John Wayne in the Lee Marvin role, Fuller pulled the plug on the project due to an understandable suspicion that his vision would be subsumed by the Duke’s blindly patriotic all-American identity. From there, he put the idea on hold for 20 years until he set off to film it independently in 1979.
Nonetheless, true to the nature of this story, this movie’s path was still an uphill climb. The ambitious expedition that Fuller proposed with this movie found itself seriously truncated by Warner Bros. Studios, the distribution outlet to whom he—according to legend—presented his four-and-a-half hour finished product.
While Fuller’s original version may not have actually been that long, the studio did excise at least 40 minutes of footage from the movie against the writer/director’s will, bringing the running time down to 113 minutes. Over the past two and a half decades, those missing minutes—which, predictably, were quickly lost in the labyrinthine storage shelves of the studio’s warehouses—became a cinematic Holy Grail of sorts, eagerly sought and frequently speculated after.
Fortunately, The Big Red One’s missing footage was not lost forever. While making a documentary about Fuller, film historian and Time Magazine film critic Richard Schickel made it his personal quest to find this lost footage in the bowels of Warner Brothers’ storage. Upon retrieving these long misplaced reels, he restored them to the film in an effort to make the “director’s cut” that—after Fuller’s death in 1997—was no longer truly possible. The recoveries comprised by this restoration extend from subtle stylistic and thematic embellishments—or example a heretofore unseen opening title card reading “This is Fictional Life, Based on Factual Death”—to completely “new” sequences that are integral to the development of major characters.
The tagline and moral of this movie is “the only glory of war is surviving.” It is this primacy of survival above all else that Fuller learned when he fought his way through World War II, propelling his journey back home and inspiring his life as a filmmaker and crime journalist. Accordingly, his masterpiece has survived him, surpassing its own particular obstacles to complete its own journey and finally arrive on the silver screen in its proper form.
—Staff writer Steven Jacobs can be reached at email@example.com