This review was written 35 years too late
Samuel Fuller‘s “The Big Red One” is a sort of autobiographical war film following the fate of four US 1st Infantry Division (the One of the title) rookies led by veteran Lee Marvin as America enters the war in late 1941.
Fuller, like Marvin, actually served. Fuller’s story is compelling, watchable and bold in ambition. Marvin brings real credibility to his role as the wise head shaping a handful of cannon fodder.
It’s an epic journey, taking in North Africa, the invasion of Sicily, the Normandy landings, the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, and the horrors at Falkenau concentration camp among others.
Marvin’s Sergeant Possum brings his core group through all of these fights mostly unscathed. One of the really interesting things about the film is how the nervous group don’t grow more cynical with each new battle, but rather start to believe in their own immortality, an immortality that’s preserved. Comrades die all around them, but never them.
It’s a curious, surreal viewpoint for a war film since, almost to a man, they focus on loss among brothers-in-arms. If this was Fuller’s own experience, then he does a splendid job of realising it on screen. Add to this soldiers hiding in holes dug in the ground as tanks roll over their heads, a misjudged shootout in a mental asylum, and a curious, smokey tree-splintered Hürtgen Forest to really go somewhere different.
Mark Hamill does his best to be someone other than Luke – some bad language and sex are attempts to move beyond a virginal, over-excited space boy – but “Red” and his other film outside of “Star Wars” during this period, “Corvette Summer“, didn’t untypecast him.
Often called one of the best war movies ever, Fuller’s epic certainly belongs up there. Its battles are a little tame compared to modern day depictions (the Normandy landings have none of the visceral, verisimilitude of “Saving Private Ryan“), but that’s just its time. And anyway, it doesn’t need spectacle to show war’s horrors – just a soldier killing another unaware peace broke out a few hours earlier.
Make sure you see the 162m restored cut to get the full experience.