"While this is an expensive epic, he hasn't fallen to the temptations of the epic form. He doesn't give us a lot of phony meaning, as if to justify the scope of the production. There aren't a lot of deep, significant speeches. In the ways that count, "The Big Red One" is still a B-movie – hard-boiled, filled with action, held together by male camaraderie, directed with a lean economy of action. It's one of the most expensive B-pictures ever made, and I think that helps it fit the subject. "A" war movies are about War, but "B" war movies are about soldiers." –Roger Ebert
Sam Fuller wasn’t a journalist or merely an observer during the Second World War: he was a Dogface, an infantryman in the 16th Regiment, 1st Infantry Division…The Big Red One. He wrote this film from his own experiences: from the initial landing in North Africa, the bloody route of the Kasserine Pass to Sicily and eventually Omaha Beach (3rd wave), the Hurtgen Forest and finally the liberation of Falkenau Concentration/Death Camp. Fuller wrote in his Autobiography A THIRD FACE that this film, made 35 years after the events, helped him deal with the nightmares that still kept him awake most nights. But he made a fiction film based on factual death because the true face of war is just too damn awful. He has made one of the greatest and most underrated war films of all time.
Ebert’s quote above is spot-on: Fuller shrinks the war from the epic to the mundane, focusing upon the five men (four Doggies and their nameless Sgt.) as they fight from battle to battle. He takes us to the short downtime between the fighting as the men laugh and joke but never pontificate about the meanings of the war or their lives without it. These are men who live only in the moment, who have learned to live with a realistic expectation of dying violently, at any moment, at any time. Yet they struggle to remain human beings and not animals. The enemies are the animals. As the gruff Sgt. tells Griff, “We don’t murder animals. We kill them.” This insight into the soldier’s psychology and day to day trauma is quite revealing and subverts typical heroic conventions of the genre. These soldiers aren’t afraid so much of dying as having their cocks shot off! Gone are the super-hero actions and overt dramatizations as each soldier is presented as an individual but with a common goal: survival. They have no plan to die for their country or some vague definition of Democracy. This existential theme is quite subversive because World War 2 films typically depict the Greatest Generation as full of chest-pounding righteousness while suppressing the human factor. Fuller sets the record straight. This is the anti-THE LONGEST DAY or the polar opposite of flag-waiving John Wayne propaganda and anathema to the trite melodramatic flourishes of FURY or SAVING PRIVATE RYAN.
Fuller may have had a limited budget for such an elaborate story so he films mostly in medium close-up to extreme close-up. Adam Greenberg’s framing is exceptional as he may film violent sequences with hundreds of extras in medium shot, yet never loses coherence of the action. Fuller cuts in the close-ups often for tight reaction shots which brings us into the trench with the soldier. It’s anxious and chaotic. Though Fuller didn’t have the budget to use actual vintage tanks and equipment this in no way diminishes the impact of the drama. The score is anything but patriotic and underlines some of the transitions yet doesn’t slather the film in John Williams’-like sentimentality. It’s a nearly perfect marriage of music and image as one compliments the other.
Fuller also mirrors the war-weary Sgt. with a Nazi Officer and gives us unique insight into the mantra of a soldier regardless of nationality or patriotism: they are just killing the enemy, after all. Once the uniform and ideology are stripped away Fuller depicts them as not too dissimilar. The Nazi Officer even echoes the Sgt.’s statement about murder to one of his own squad…before shooting him for not following orders. If this seems like Fuller is making a moral statement about the contemptuous Nazi-Code, he later shows us Omaha Beach on D-day were the Sgt. practically murders Griff because the young soldier is too scared to follow orders. Soldiers are all the same indeed!
Morals and Murder aside, it’s really the quiet moments that shine in Fuller’s story. Here, the squad relaxes amid the destruction and sometimes celebrates with liberated civilians. But it’s the children whom Fuller focuses upon the most. The little boy who wants a four-handled casket and “taxi” for his dead mother who lays rotting away in a wooden cart, the little girl who puts flowers in the Sgt.’s Helmet or the little girl who stares hungrily while he eats his rations. There’s even a pregnant woman who gives birth inside of a tank! (Which is a true story; Fuller just placed he experience into a fictional context) Lastly, the malnourished little boy whom they save from Falkenau Death camp who dies on the shoulders of the weary Sgt. These innocents suffer but don’t dredge tears from our soldiers. The soldiers don’t talk wistfully of their civilian life or dead comrades or pray to a higher deity. There is no time for that Hollywood nonsense. There is only fear, lust and survival. What finally draws a reaction from the “coward” Griff is the sight of the inmates at Falkenau. So he finds a Nazi hiding in one of the ovens and is finally able to kill…not murder. Even the Sgt. seeks to make amends for his killing of a Hun soldier in the First World War by saving a Nazi officer he bayonetted after the recent Armistice.
Sam Fuller’s Reconstruction deliberately deconstructs the genre conventions of the War Film by portraying the fight for survival as the driving human force and not raging patriotism. He does not waive the flag in the audiences’ face. There are no profound jingoistic exclamations. Fuller dedicates THE BIG RED ONE to those who shot but didn’t get shot because surviving is the only glory in war, after all.
Final Grade: (A+)