Sam Fuller

I hate to shift gears, particularly since the thread on Xala is terrific, but I watched Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One last night and I was mightily impressed. I had seen this film long ago, on network television I think. Maybe it was USA or something, because I don’t recall much being deleted. But I couldn’t resist revisiting the film since it’s been “reconstructed”–that is to say, some 45 minutes have been restored. My recollection of the theatrical version is too dim to make any comments about the differences between it and the “reconstructed” version (for anyone who is interested in that, watch the bonus DVD, which has “before and after” scene comparisons). So let me instead just sing praises.

The film is fantastic. I was never bored, nor unconvinced. The battle scenes are remarkable in part because of their narrow scope. I remember thinking of Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which gave us something like a bird’s eye view of Normandy Beach. Nothing was left out of our field of vision and, consequently, never did we lose sense of the terrain, the environment, where the men were going and why. But Fuller’s film has a completely different feel. There’s a sense of closeness, a kind of intimacy, in part because this is the story of four young men and their sergeant who belong to the 3rd battalion 16th infantry division. But this closeness (probably a more apt term) is achieved at a formal level; you have no cinematic “peripheral vision.” One of the criticisms you could make (and I thank has been made–of the theatrical version) is that the film is narratively incoherent; one minute you’re on the beach in North Africa, then Tunis, now in Sicily, and now at Omaha Beach. Worse, you have no idea what’s going on. But a line from the film pretty much explains the necessity for shooting this way: “The creepy thing about battle is you always feel alone. All you can see are the guys right next to you and the bodies you keep tripping over.” Later, Private Zab says “I bet when we get off this island we’ll get our feet wet again invading Italy” to which another says, “You don’t know geography well. We’re in Italy” and another, “No no no, this is Sicily.” It’s a good line, and one that applies to my point here: you don’t know the geography well.

There are some truly outstanding scenes, too many to mention so I’ll just mention a few:

A young Sicilian boy barters with the Sergeant–he’ll lead them to an SP in exchange for a coffin for his dead mother, whose corpse is slowly rotting in a cart he pulls along with him through the rubble.

The 16th scope out a presumably dead German tank division, only to discover it’s a trap set by Sgt. Schroeder of the German army.

Smitty, a “wetnose” who is truly in awe of the 16th, trips a wire and his testicle blown off. Sergeant says trip wires are designed not to kill but to castrate. He reaches down on the ground next to Smitty and says, “hear it is!” and Smitty shouts “that’s my cock! Gimme back my cock.” He then shouts for joy when he learns it’s just a testicle.

Which leads me to a final point. This film is about who has the balls and who does not (sorry Gio). The 16th clearly does. They’re cocky, but not at all unlikable. This is largely due to some nice casting and terrific acting. I really like Bobby Di Cicco. I don’t know what happened to this guy, but he’s very, very good here (as he was in Spielberg’s underrated 1941). Best of all is Marvin, who is fabulous from the very beginning, which actually takes place at the end of WWI. Marvin has just killed a German, even though it’s been armistice for four hours. An especially good scene comes just a few moments later in the film after Griff, a sharp shooter who never misses, “chokes” on the beach in North Africa:

Griff: I can’t murder anyone.
Sergeant: We don’t murder, we kill.
Griff: It’s the same thing.
Sergeant: Like hell it is! You don’t murder animals, you kill them.

And then, for a brief moment, you can see in the Sergeant’s eyes that he is thinking back to that German he “killed” four hours after armistice, and the fine line he’s just thickened.

I’m a Fuller fan, no doubt about it. But I don’t think my fondness for him is clouding my senses. I really think this is a remarkable film, and I know not everyone likes war films, but I do hope some of you who have had a chance to see the restored version can chime in here.

One thought on “Sam Fuller”

  1. I have to second John’s recommendation, though I’ve only seen the original version not the extended version yet. With Point Blank and Prime Cut it’s one of Marvin’s best performances. The film, as John vividly points out, feels both loose and expansive, never centered in a conventional way, while always true to an intensely personal vision of combat and the mutual dependence of soldiers. There’s a good documentary in which Fuller in his distinctive style recounts his war experiences, but the title slips my mind.

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