The Big Red One (1980)


(director/writer: Samuel Fuller; cinematographer: Adam Greenberg; editor: Bryan McKenzie; music: Diana Kaproff; cast: Lee Marvin (The Sergeant), Mark Hamill (Pvt. Griff, 1st Squad), Robert Carradine (Pvt. Zab, 1st Squad), Bobby Di Cicco (Pvt. Vinci, 1st Squad), Kelly Ward (Pvt. Johnson, 1st Squad), Stéphane Audran (Underground Walloon fighter at asylum), Siegfried Rauch (Schroeder), Serge Marquand (Rensonnet), Charles Macauley (General/Captain), Alain Doutey (Broban), Maurice Marsac (Vichy Colonel), Colin Gilbert (Dog Face P.O.W.), Joseph Clark (Shep), Ken Campbell (Lemchek), Doug Werner (Switolski), Perry Lang (Kaiser), Howard Delman (Smitty), Marthe Villalonga (Madame Marbaise); Runtime: 113; MPAA Rating: PG-13; producer: Gene Corman; Warner Brothers; 1980)

“… displays both raw power and the hint of war’s brutality.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

This is cult writer/director Sam Fuller’s (“The Steel Helmet”/”Fixed Bayonets”/”Merrill’s Marauders”) haunting classic semi-autobiographical account of his WWII tour of duty with the US First Infantry from 1942 to 1945. The deceased filmmaker was a twice wounded corporal. Though not a great film–the acting is merely adequate and the timing of the film seems off–nevertheless it’s a messy but good one that displays both raw power and the hint of war’s brutality, though it doesn’t equal Fuller’s best war film “The Steel Helmet.” Shot on a modest budget of $4 million, it follows Fuller’s dictum of avoiding phony heroics. In his memoir Fuller said he was disappointed that the original 4 hour version was so severely edited. Under Time Magazine’s esteemed film critic Richard Schickel’s charge it was restored with one hour added, as he did his best in trying to recover the lost reels.

It chronicles a squad under the leadership of a stoic, gruff, grizzled veteran sergeant (Lee Marvin), who fought in World War I with the The Big Red One–the First Infantry. He acts as a surrogate father to the young callow recruits as they go from a beach assault in North Africa, Sicily, England, D-Day landing in Normandy, Belgium and finally to the liberation of a concentration camp in Falkenau, Czechoslovakia. Basically it tells the story of the land war in Europe through five ordinary soldiers. The idea of war for Fuller is to survive; the only members of the squad who survive are Marvin and four riflemen–Griff (Mark Hamill), Zab (Fuller’s screen surrogate, played by Robert Carradine), Pvt. Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco), and Pvt. Johnson (Kelly Ward). Griff is an earnest young man with a talent as a cartoonist who is a sharpshooter but suffers from battle fright; Zab is a cigar-chomping aspiring writer; Vinci is a wise guy of Sicilian descent; and Johnson is a country boy suffering from hemorrhoids.

Sequences that stand out are the loony-bin shoot-out and the landing on Omaha, supposedly influencing Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.”