The Big Red One
Dir.: Samuel Fuller
R, 158 min.
Opening Friday at the Belcourt Theatre
"See, there's no way you can portray war realistically.... For moviegoers to get the idea of real combat, you'd have to shoot at them every so often from either side of the screen. The casualties in the theater would be bad for business. Such reaching for reality in the name of art is against the law." Samuel Fuller, A Third Face
This is fictional life," reads the title card that opens Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One, "based on factual death." That kick in the gut may be the most honest description ever made of war movies. At various times, war movies have been gung-ho propaganda meant to rouse enlistment, period pieces treated as lavish spectacle, antiwar jeremiads of blood and horror. And yet, as Fuller's quote says, all share one thing: a line of experience that movies cannot cross. For viewers who have no clue how it feels to face a bayonet, the best a war movie can do is report.
Fuller was the man for the job. As a teenager in the early 1930s, he had covered a blood-and-guts beat on New York's legendary Park Row. Already he was a cigar-chomping raconteur, and he honed an eye for detail, a zest for sensation, and a lifelong delight in what he called "a helluva yarn." When he became a filmmaker after serving in World War II, his veins still pumped tabloid ink. While Hollywood was still patting itself on the back for racism-is-bad parables like The Defiant Ones, Fuller fired off 1963's Shock Corridorin which a black student integrating a Southern college internalizes so much white hatred that he turns into a Klansman.
The Big Red One was Fuller's dream project, an account of his wartime exploits with the First Infantry. He waited 30 years to get it made, and by the time he got the chance, he was constrained by a skin-tight budget. For release, in 1980, the movie was cut by at least an hour. Now, seven years after Fuller's death, The Big Red One is finally touring the country in a meticulously reassembled restoration. Yet even in this substantially longer version, its limitations as a war movieespecially its restriction to Fuller's own wartime experienceare more rewarding than its ambitions.
"Restriction" isn't exactly the right word, since Fuller saw a hell of a lot. Like Zab, the Fuller surrogate played by Robert Carradine, the writer-director humped it from North Africa to Normandy as a dogface, and when GIs kicked open the doors at Falkenau he was there to record the horrors within. All that is in The Big Red One, as Fuller channels a string of astounding memories into the story of a world-weary sergeant (Lee Marvin) shepherding four recruits from landing to armistice.
What makes The Big Red One so vital, and ultimately so haunting, is the specificity of those memories. The critic Manny Farber devised the term "termite art" to describe the work of directors like Fuller: movies that burrow as deeply as they can into one small area, rather than taking on grandiose airs. Fuller isn't making a grand pronouncement about war; he's just telling us everything he knows about his war.
Compare Steven Spielberg's staging of the bloody landing at Omaha Beach in Saving Private Ryan with Fuller's here. Spielberg wants us to know not only how it felt to be there but how it felt for everybody: there are cameras buzzing everywhere, lots of piled-up bodies and a sound mix that amounts to a shelling. Fuller's version is less technically impressive, but its minute details are poetically apt. The time is recorded in the watch on a dead man's wrist, in surf washed red with blood. However more "real" Private Ryan seems, the narrowness of Fuller's focus has an unshakable, cumulative firsthand veracity.
As you find in Fuller's riveting autobiography A Third Face, only the moments that seem least plausible in The Big Red One are true. The French woman who gives birth in a tank attended by wide-eyed GIs. The unforgettable scene where the sergeant chucks away a soldier's blown-off testicle. Or the scene in which the stone-faced Marvin carries a gnarled child from the death camps, to the plinking of a music box, long after the girl has slumped lifelessly on his shoulders. The episodes spin almost breathlessly, as if a dying man had one shot to tell his entire story.
While the new Big Red One is considerably more fluid and less episodic, the main thing it restores is more of these memories. Fuller isn't around to shoot at us from the screen's edges. All he left us, to get across some scrap of the experience of surviving war, is this movie. The only glory is staying alive, Zab says at one point, and that's the only thing that will never change. One soldier stumbles upon a World War I memorial and marvels, "The names are the same." Marvin replies, "They always are."
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