Bigger, Redder, but Still the One

When I was 11, I went to see the Big Red One, a WWII film starring Lee Marvin and Mark Hamill (and yes, as a young Star Wars fan, “Luke’s” new movie was a draw). This may have been the first war movie I saw in the theater, but I’m not 100% sure about that. Anyway, while critics were pretty lukewarm about it (saying it was too “episodic”, amongst other things), I dug the hell out of it. Over the years, I’ve watched it dozens of times on cable and though I later saw better war films, I always liked the Big Red One.

What I didn’t know as a young lad was that director and writer Samuel Fuller was actually a veteran of the 1st Infantry Division and had himself fought through the North African, Sicilian, and European campaigns. Indeed, much of the movie is autobiographical. I also didn’t know that the original cut of the movie was nearly 4 hours long but the studio made Fuller cut it down to half that. Rumor has it that the original 4-hour version still exists in some studio vault. I can only hope this is true and that it someday sees the light of day. In the interim, I’ll have to settle for the Big Red One: the Reconstruction. Some spoilers follow.

This new version of the film restores 45 minutes or so of lost footage. It’s playing here in Seattle this week at the Northwest Film Forum and I made time yesterday to check it out before the run ended. I’m glad I did. While the new scenes are not always edited in seamlessly, all of the additions are worthwhile. You can really see what Fuller was trying to do in this film. He wanted to portray the GI experience, from the comic to the tragic to the absurd. I have read many memoirs of WWII vets and so many of the scenes ring true. There are some fundamental parts of being a soldier that more patriotic movies (Saving Private Ryan, for example) underplay of simply miss out on. Part of the reason, I think, is that the “folks back home”, even 50 years later, don’t want to hear about some of the less heroic things soldiers did. For example, one restored scene shows the squad fighting alongside some Goumiers (they were French-led Moroccan troops that fought hard for the French and then go screwed; see my V for Victory RPG for some details). Afterwards, the Goumiers cut the ears off the German dead and traded them to the Americans for cigarettes. This seems ghoulish to us, but it’s not that unusual. Many marines in the Pacific, for instance, cut ears off Japanese soldiers as well.

Many of the restored scenes have to do with the troops’ sexuality. Again, not something the public is so keen on hearing about. If you’ve seen the original movie, you may remember the scene where the squad helps a French woman deliver a baby inside a Tiger tank. One line that was cut from the original has the guy delivering the baby saying to the Sergeant, “This makes me horny.” Not what you’d expect from someone confronted with a woman on the verge of giving birth, but these were young guys away from woman for months and sometimes years. The original also featured a part where wounded Lee Marvin is stuck in a German hospital in Tunis. It did not show the beginning of that scene, however, in which a tattooed Nazi starts kissing Lee Marvin on the mouth. Marvin, ever the cool guy, grabs the Nazi by the throat and says, “I understand that you’re horny, Fritz, but you’ve got bad breath.” Another scene that plays differently in the restored version shows a replacement who triggers a castrator mine. He loses a ball, but shouts joyously when he sticks his hand down his pants, “I still have my cock!”

Other scenes epitomize events from the European campaign. One squad member is killed a sniper, for instance, who turns out to be a 10 year old Hitler Youth (an interesting prelude to Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, which does something similar with a young Vietnamese woman). They also run into a group of Volksturm, the “People’s Army” Hitler tried to use to staunch the Allies as they plowed into Germany. In Fuller’s film, these old men don’t even have weapons, just placards with Hitler’s face on it. Nonetheless, they try to block the American advance.

In scene after scene, you can see Fuller trying to fit it all on screen, trying to document his experience emotionally if not always factually (the movie opens with the line “This is a fictional life based on factual death”). So yes, it is episodic but so was the war. Also, the added scenes add more narrative threads that tie the film together. The fact that Fuller lived through all these campaigns makes it that much more potent. Someday, I hope I can watch the full 4-hour version. I do recommend this new version for the historically minded and those who like war movies.

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