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Reflections on "The Big Red One"
Welcome to my page of thoughts on Samuel Fuller's excellent WW2 action/drama film starring Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill and Robert Carradine.
First released in 1980 to critical approval, but fairly weak returns, "The Big Red One" has been "reconstructed" to something resembling the glory Sam Fuller originally intended for his epic tale of four young riflemen under the tutelage of their Sergeant (Lee Marvin) during world war two. Apparently Fuller originally intended the film to have a running time of some four hours and the new version (overseen by Richard Schickel) runs to two hours forty minutes, a considerable extension of the film's initial commercial one hour fifty minute release. I'm sure Fuller would have been delighted with the resultant broadening and deepening of his film.
The war film has a certain terrible fascination for me. War, and the circumstances which surround it, bring out the best and the worst in people, and as such is clearly a source of powerful drama and conflict. The war film has one of the broadest canvases for painting a picture of humanity in all its complexity. It can touch on a wide variety of themes - courage, friendship, determination, patriotism, sacrifice, fighting for a cause, family, freedom, etc., etc..
Some war films are more or less adventure stories which use the theatre of war as nothing more than their stage. Some other war films develop and explore their themes and characters in order to make a statement about man and his nature.
The most successful are probably those in which the right balance of character development and development of theme is struck. "The Sand Pebbles" is a wonderful example of such a film. Sometimes, however, pursuit of a theme or "message" can eclipse the characters. "Apocalyse Now", while stunning and undeniably brilliant, remains largely unaffecting in terms of caring about its characters. Of course Coppola didn't set out to achieve real sympathy - his characters are puppets used to illustrate points made in support of the film's pretext.
"The Big Red One", however, is quite enigmatic in that it doesn't fit very comfortably into any of these categories. While it contains many reflective passages, it is essentially a personal and very human portrayal of war in which the reflective moments arise from the characters and the events they experience. These events have the ring of truth and realism about them. Indeed, many of them are just too idiosyncratic to be anything but based on reality. This is clearly director Sam Fuller's account of his war, as we follow four young riflemen through some major battles in the second half of WW2.
Although the film traces our heroes' participation in numerous campaigns and key battles, from the start there is a quirkiness to the film. Told almost as a series of personal wartime anecdotes, the film is somewhat episodic in nature and concentrates on the skirmishes experienced by our handful of heroes. Thus, while the scale may be reduced, the effect is to make the whole more immediate and engaging.
The characters are well drawn and we share their fears, reactions and emotions as they go from one battle/campaign to another, and as the whole is laced with humour it remains entertaining as well as thought provoking.
A number of themes are touched upon, but the overwhelming "message" is that you do what you have to do to survive in times of war.
Fuller's film is a totally absorbing mixture of emotion, atmosphere, suspense, thrills and most importantly a series of human observations on what it means to fight a war. The narrative moves fast, with many exciting set pieces, but what really sets it apart from other war films is the detail in the fleshing out of the characters and the fact that each episode looks at another facet of war - be it hope, friendship, fear, misplaced faith, horror or inhumanity. Yet these are not dwelt upon, pursued or developed to any great extent. They are moments arising from particular events and circumstances, each one inviting reflection on the part of the viewer and also creating the impression the viewer has shared the experience of war by sharing the soldiers' feelings and understanding their actions and reactions. We are not led to explore one or two repeated themes, but experience a diversity of encounters and emotions, some of which are just so quirky and bizarre they have to be based on reality.
Lee Marvin is the paternal or avuncular (though nameless) Sergeant who offers guidance, leadership and advice to his men. He is a professional soldier - dutiful, loyal, courageous and determined. Yet we are given enough glimpses of the man beneath the crusty exterior to feel that at times he is playing a part.
At the start of the film, just hours after the WW1 armistice, the Sergeant kills a German soldier (without knowing the war was in fact over). When he discovers what he has done he is remorseful, indicating that he is not defined by his actions as a soldier. He remains human and caring, and will always be haunted by the death of this German soldier - another sign of his enduring humanity. He has done what he felt he had to do in order to survive and to allow society and freedom to survive as well.
This theme is revisited a couple of times in the film, but especially at the end when history repeats itself and the Sergeant once again attacks a German soldier without realising an end of hostilities had already been declared. Once again he shows regret, but goes on to try to save his life when he discovers the German has survived the attack. This man is no killing machine, but a principled and thoughtful man defending what he believes in against an enemy willing to deprive him of what he believes is right. With considerable irony, so too is the German soldier the Sergeant attacked.
At one point, when he is conversing with Griff (who is in a state of shock, having just been in battle for the first time), the Sergeant tells him the enemy should be regarded as an animal and killed as such - there can be no room for compassion and sympathy in the heat of battle. He knows that a moment's hesitation could cost Griff his life. The argument he offers is how he chooses to look on things, for that is what allows him to get on and do what he needs to do as a soldier. However, the look on his face just after this statement clearly tells us he knows there is more to it than that simple black and white view, but that attitude will allow the Sergeant to survive - both physically and psychologically.
A clear indication that the Sergeant has a gentle side and is playing a role as a soldier is the fact that children are drawn to him throughout the film. Although he tries to hide it, he has quite a rapport with children. He shares his tin of food in North Africa, helps the little boy who simply wants to give his dead mother a proper burial in Sicily, receives flowers in his helmet from a young girl also in Sicily, and of course (and quite unforgettably) offers support to the little boy found in the concentration camp. Interestingly, it is also left to the Sergeant to punish the child sniper who attacks them in one of the reconstruction scenes.
Children sense, by and large, when they are secure with someone. The repeated scenes with children show us much about the Sergeant's nature - more than a discussion of his past or his feelings might have told us.
Among other reflective moments, there is the statue of Christ on the cross in the middle of a French battlefield. This is where the Sergeant killed the German soldier after the end of WW1, but it is also the site of an ambush set by German soldiers.
We are told, as our heroes approach this site, that the Sergeant became increasingly withdrawn. Once again this fact, and the look on Marvin's face, tell us much about the Sergeant's thoughts and feelings - much more than through an extended discussion.
Jesus, the symbol of goodness, hope and peace seems to overlook the carnage of war almost in despair. Is all that he stood for and tried to give the world lost? There is a brave and lengthy shot of the wooden statue which, combined with the music played, suggests despair and disapproval, inviting the audience to question the sense of what is going on. This whole scene may also suggest that religion can never overcome man's aggressive nature. Disputes will explode into violence despite (and sometimes because of) attempts to impose spiritual meaning and direction. It is also worth noting that religion plays no very meaningful part in the rest of the film.
Griff's "cowardice" is a reflection not so much of fear, but of humanity. Griff finds it hard to accept he must take another life, though it becomes clear it is a question of kill or be killed. When on the beaches of Normandy he once again hesitates as he confronts the horrors of battle, but he is pushed into completing his mission by the Sergeant because not to do so would mean putting his fellow soldiers' lives at risk. This is a grim but necessary reminder that every man depends on every other to achieve their goal.
When launching an attack on an asylum there is an interesting debate on the unacceptability of killing insane people. Yet, as Griff points out, it is acceptable to kill those perceived as sane. This idea is developed as, in the course of the attack, one of the "patients" picks up a gun and goes on to shoot many others, quite randomly, calling out, "I am like you. I am sane." This is yet another beautifully crafted scene which questions the definition of sane behaviour more eloquently than any debate.
The scenes in the concentration camp towards the end are pivotal to the film. Throughout the film we have shared our soldiers' feelings and reactions to the various situations and battles in which they found themselves. With the concentration camp we (and they) discover why this war had to be fought.
Entirely aptly, these scenes are played out almost totally without speech. Words cannot do justice to what they feel, so the depth of feeling and revulsion is conveyed through the pursuit and killing of a camp guard who tries to take refuge inside the very ovens used to dispose of bodies.
The scenes between the sergeant and the malnourished, maltreated and dying little boy are the most moving of the film, and are made all the more poignant by the fact they are almost wordless. This may reflect a common core humanity not governed by language, but more importantly it taps directly into bare and raw emotion as we witness the death of the child while the Sergeant holds his hand. This is what man is capable of doing to his fellow man.
A recurring aspect of life as they face death together is the bond of loyalty and friendship they develop. This bond is accentuated by the fact that no-one else can break into this elite group. Efforts of replacements and new recruits to enter their circle are simply not recognised. Friendship and closeness can lead to pain and loss of morale as friends lose their lives. It is safer to keep a distance and so, despite appearances to the contrary, this attitude reflects sensitivity rather than the contrary.
"The Big Red One" has been called by some the greatest war film ever made (though it only made no. 98 in Channel 4's recent "100 Greatest War Films"). Claims of this type are impossible to evaluate and must ultimately be subjective. I have, however, no hesitation is saying that, in my opinion, it is one of the best war films I have seen. Its depiction of life as a soldier at the forefront of battle in WW2 is second to none as it manages to combine realism, excitement, emotion and humour.
The performances are all very strong, but none more so than that of Lee Marvin who galvanises the production as the Sergeant with a steely exterior, protecting a caring interior. Often seen in quality productions as a tough and independent figure, here he is given the opportunity to add several layers to his screen persona, which he achieves with quite astonishing effectiveness by means of a look rather than a script. As such, he was surely the perfect lead actor for this Sam Fuller film.
I have to admit Fuller is a director whose work I know very little of, but this film has inspired me to make the effort to seek out and appreciate his other projects.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page. I hope you found it of some value.
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