Late last year I read The Big Red One, a novel by filmmaker Sam Fuller, based on his World War II experiences. It was published in 1980, the same year as the film he made with that title, and was based, I believe, on the film’s screenplay on which Fuller had been laboring for decades. I then read the portions of Fuller’s autobiography that dealt with the war. Titled A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking (2002), it was like reading a streamlined version of the novel. Everything he recounted in the autobiography was in the novel. I’d seen the movie, THE BIG RED ONE, when it came out in 1980 in the studio-mandated 113-minute version that was much shorter than Fuller’s intended cut, but at this point I’d never seen the reconstructed version of 162 min. that came out in 2004, seven years after Fuller’s death, even though I had the DVD.
The Big Red One is quite a good war novel, although it’s not a great one, like Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, or James Jones’ The Thin Red Line, which are modern literary masterpieces. Fuller’s style is too much like that of a pulp fiction writer, much more interested in dramatic effect than characterization, introspection or in-depth detailing. He has to keep the story moving and cuts to the action time and again. Perhaps it’s a result of his crime reporting background. Still, the book is quite intense and makes us feel the experience of this one sergeant and his four riflemen in an infantry squad from the First Division (the Big Red One) as they fought from North Africa to Sicily, returned to England for more training and then landed at Omaha Beach for D-Day, continuing on through France, Belgium and Germany, before liberating a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. The Omaha Beach scenes capture the hell and gory destruction of that combat in a way that’s very hard to do on film, SAVING PRIVATE RYAN notwithstanding.
So, after reading the novel and portions of the autobiography, I finally watched THE BIG RED ONE: THE RECONSTRUCTION. All the scenes that were added to it (50 min. worth) are all in the book. In fact, every scene in the movie is in the book. Furthermore, the book has many more scenes that were probably filmed and included in Fuller’s original four-and-a-half-hour edit. (I particularly missed the D-Day training sessions in England and the scene where Private Vinci meets his Italian grandmother in a farmhouse the squad has just liberated.)
It’s a powerful film and I was able to watch it all in one sitting. It’s a remarkable achievement and deserves credit for being a war film where excitement is sacrificed for accuracy and honesty. Reading the book made me appreciate the movie more for its ability to dramatize incidents that really happened, without dramatic exaggeration or contrivance for cinematic effect. It’s a story of what it’s like to be a soldier who survives. That’s really all it is. Every scene is a collection of specific details, bits of information necessary for us to know who’s where, what’s what, and what the dangers are. Fuller just cuts to what’s essential—even if it’s a simple action like taking a nap or eating from a can of K-rations between battles. We don’t get a lot of scenes with officers explaining objectives or laying out charts or maps. It’s not that kind of a war movie. It’s about the experience of the boots on the ground.
It suffers a bit from some of the casting and the fact that it was shot on a low budget (reportedly $4 million, a tenth of what HEAVEN’S GATE cost that same year). Some of the topography and extras casting don’t look right, given that most of the film was shot in Israel, subbing for North Africa, Sicily, Omaha Beach, Belgium, and Czechoslovakia. Some scenes simply look way too sunny and the extras in the French, Belgium and Czech scenes don’t quite look the part. Some of the Germany parts were filmed in Ireland.
The casting of the four main squad members bothered me back in 1980. They looked too contemporary to be World War II G.I.’s. Nor did they look battle-hardened enough by the end of the movie. But it didn’t bother me so much this time.
Maybe because they don’t look so contemporary anymore. They’re almost as far back in time today as the war was when the film was made.
Bobby Di Cicco, as Private Vinci, in fact, could pass for a WWII-era G.I.:
Lee Marvin, of course, despite being about 20 years too old for the part, is letter-perfect in his performance: the looks and gestures, the subtle smiles, the way he reaches out to his men without betraying too much emotion. He broke my heart and I guess you can’t ask much more than that. (Marvin was a veteran of the war, a marine who was wounded in the Battle of Saipan in the Pacific.)
One of the restored scenes has Fuller himself in a cameo as a combat photographer filming the men after their victory in Italy. (And that’s probably the exact Bell & Howell camera he carried with him in the latter months of the war.)
After seeing the movie, I then went back to Fuller’s autobiography and read the parts on the making of THE BIG RED ONE and his fervent hope that someone would eventually put together his complete cut. I’m glad we got what we got, although I’d sure like to see the four-and-a-half-hour cut.
It’s interesting to compare Fuller’s recreation of Omaha Beach in THE BIG RED ONE with the two other films that recreated that bloody section of the D-Day landing, THE LONGEST DAY (1962) and SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998). I’ll save that for another entry, but I will say that THE LONGEST DAY recreates the action that Fuller describes in his novel, in which a squad of men manages to lay down the pipes for the bangalore torpedoes, under heavy enemy fire, and proceeds to blow a hole through a barricade to allow them to take the fight to the Nazis. The scene includes the famous call to the troops to get off the beach, attributed to Colonel George A. Taylor in Fuller’s autobiography, an unnamed Colonel in the novel, and Brigadier General Norman Cota (Robert Mitchum) in THE LONGEST DAY. Here are the exact quotes:
A Third Face (autobiography, p. 164):
“There are two kinds of men out here!” shouted the colonel to anyone listening. “The dead! And those who are about to die! So let’s get the hell off this beach and at least die inland!”
The Big Red One (novel, p. 284, and screenplay):
“There are two kinds of men on this beach!” said the Colonel. “Those who are dead and those who are about to die. So let’s get off this goddamn beach and die inland!”
THE LONGEST DAY (at the 2:34:04 mark)
General Norman Cota:
“Only two kinds of people are gonna stay on this beach–those that are already dead and those that are gonna die. Now get off your butts! You guys are the Fightin’ 29th!”
Fuller was the one who’d reported the opening in the barricade to the colonel and witnessed him standing up and making this exhortation. (In Fuller’s Korean war film, THE STEEL HELMET, 1951, Sergeant Zack, played by Gene Evans, a D-Day veteran, recounts Colonel Taylor’s exhortation and quotes him the way it’s quoted in the novel, only without the “Goddamn.”)
I wonder what Fuller would have thought of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. He died while that film was in production. Did Spielberg, a friend of his, ever consult him on it or show him any scenes from it?
Fuller made quite a few other war films, with THE STEEL HELMET and MERRILL’S MARAUDERS (1962), which was about the Burma campaign in World War II, remaining two of the standout Hollywood films in the genre and among the very few to accurately capture the minute-by-minute experience of men on the ground in combat without glorifying war as a noble adventure. But THE BIG RED ONE took it to a whole other level and the restored version is one of the finest war films Hollywood ever made and quite possibly the most honest. And, despite the filmmaker’s impressive previous body of work, it just might be Fuller’s one true masterpiece.