Big Red One, The

Reviewed By Chris Parry
Posted 05/02/03 19:37:02

"A 60's war film born two decades too late."
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

Samuel Fuller was the damn man. A cigar-chomping wise ass who started out as the youngest crime reporter in New York City at age 17, then went on to write pulp fiction novels, serve in the US Army during WWII, ride the rails as a hobo, and then write, direct and produce dozens of inexpensive, largely independent movies over five decades. He was gruff, took no crap and had a million stories from his well-lived life that he was happy to share with anyone who'd listen. Heck, they even named a street after him in Finland. All of which is why I find it so difficult to tell you that this film stinks up the joint.

Less a story and more a collection of anecdotes, The Big Red One follows four soldiers (Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine, Bobby Di Cicco and Kelly Ward) and their hard-as-nails Sergeant (Lee Marvin) as they traipse around Europe and North Africa, offing Germans and trying not to get greased as their replacement soldiers eat it, one after another. And that's basically it.

Fuller's talent for gritty macho dialogue served him well in the 50's and 60's as he brought such films as The Steel Helmet and Park Row to the world, but when the 80's rolled around we'd all moved away from the John Wayne era of balls-out bravado. The Big Red One, Fuller's Hollywood comeback flick after having spent the 70's in European exile, is practically devoid of modern day filmmaking technique. With a Corman brother producing and Lorimar TV financing the project, Fuller's penchant for shortcuts is abundantly apparent. Stock footage abounds, and so too do poorly staged battle and fight scenes. Every gunshot is the same sound effect as the last, and every German tank can never be shown up close because... well... they're actually American tanks with German paintjobs.

Adding to the eye-rolling is Robert Carradine's character of Private Zab. An almost caricatured likeness of Fuller himself, it's not hard to see why this guy became famous as a 'nerd' within a few years of the production. If the cigar-chomping doesn't have you hitting fast forward, the silly dialogue most definitely will, and Lee Marvin's anonymous Sergeant takes these traits to a whole other level. When he shows an injured soldier his just severed testicle, throws it over his soldier and says "you won't miss it, that's why they give you two," you'll possibly wonder if you rented a Friday the 13th sequel by mistake.

There definitely are moments of importance and depth in The Big Red One, but it takes a little work to find them amongst all the whining of Mark Hamill (who knew he was the reason that Luke Sywalker was such a drag?), the ultra-cajones of Carradine and the rank silliness of Marvin. When looked at with the knowledge that Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter and A Bridge Too Far were already in the can when this was produced, its deficiencies become even more apparent. Why Fuller felt the urge to place every off-putting scene he could think of in the film (even a woman giving birth as soldiers use strings of bullets as stirrups and condoms as rubber gloves), one can only imagine.

I'm a big fan of Fuller's earlier work, but there's a reason he found it hard to get gigs in the US through the 70's; his pulp fiction style just didn't play anymore. Like the later work of Ray Harryhausen and Sam Peckinpah, Fuller's latter day writing and directing just doesn't stand up in the cold harsh light of modern times. Like the other two, he should be remembered as a true innovator, a man of distinction, and a soldier who marched to the beat of his own drum, but taking The Big Red One as an example of his importance to world cinema will most certainly not show you why.

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