Sunday, 14 March 2010

Discount Bin Movie Club: The Big Red One!

Welcome to the show folks...

I just realized that it's been a long time since I've taken you on one of my trips into the realm of big box store discount bins for movies for the discerning cheapskate like me.

Today I'm taking a look at Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One. For the uninitiated, the Big Red One was the nickname of the US Army's First Infantry Division. Writer/Director Samuel Fuller was a "dog-face" G.I. rifleman in that division in World War 2, and had fought for years to make a film about his war experiences.

After failing to get it made at Warner Bros. Fuller finally made a deal with TV sitcom powerhouse and occasional movie producer Lorimar to make the movie.

While the film got made, it was taken away from Fuller, and over 45 minutes of the film was chopped out by Lorimar and it's 1980 release, despite the attention for having Star Wars star Mark Hamill, it disappeared at the box-office.

My first memory of the film was watching it on TV one summer when I was about ten or twelve years old. I got the sensation from that experience that it was a merely OK film, that was missing what it took to be a great film.

Turned out I was right.

Those missing 45 minutes are just what it took to take this film to the level of being a great war movie. Without them the story has more holes that Clyde Barrow's carcass. With the missing scenes, it's a masterful blend of brutality and poignancy, or as Fuller himself describes it, a fictional life based on factual death.

Leading the film is Lee Marvin, who gives a sadly underrated performance as The Sergeant (no other name is given). If the complete film had been released he probably would have been at least nominated for his second Oscar. The scene near the end with him and the young holocaust survivor could, as my grandpa would say, bring a tear to a glass eye. His supporting cast of Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine, Bobby DiCicco, and Kelly Ward (as the 4 Horseman) also give solid performances as young men who are in way over their head. The simple fact that they endure the dehumanizing horrors that surround them makes them heroic in their own way.

And the film portrays the madness of warfare extremely well. The scene that sums it up the best occurs in a Belgian asylum for the mentally handicapped and insane that the Germans are using as a spotting post for their artillery. During a battle between Marvin's squad and the Germans, one of the patients picks up a German sub machine gun and starts firing wildly. And while he's shooting the crap out of the place, he's screaming: "I'm sane! I'm one of you! I'm sane!"

That sums it up beautifully.

Another thing to remember is that Fuller made this film with a budget that was a mere fraction of the one Stephen Spielberg spent on the opening of Saving Private Ryan alone. Which makes Fuller's achievement even more impressive.

Now you can tell in some spots where scenes were restored, but that's not really very distracting, and the improvement over the theatrical cut story-wise makes the occasional glimpse of film grain worth it.

The extra features comes with documentaries on Sam Fuller himself, the making and restoration of the film, a post-war doc about the real Big Red One, an audio commentary by historian Richard Schickel, and tons more stuff. And the greatest irony is that Warner Bros. who had passed on making the film originally, spent the time, money, and expertise, to restore it from the pieces left in the Lorimar vault after they took over that company.

I'm giving this film my highest discount bin rating, I'd have paid full price for it.


  1. It's funny how you brought up that one "tragic" moment at the end. When I saw it, it did effect me and made me remember it for a long time. But then I watched 'Band of Brothers' and heard a medic shout at a warning to the shocked soldiers to NOT give the prisoners too much food.. they would DIE from a type of food overloading within their emaciated bodies.

    So now I still remember that moment with a smirk now. Lee Marvin KILLED the kid with kindness. This tells me that patience in the dealings with subjects I know very little of is paramount.

  2. One of my fav films, during the labo scene int eh tank, you can tell marvin was ad-libing when one of the prop condoms broke, instead of calling for a redo he quipped, "That's the army for you."

    We just do not get talent like that anymore.