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The Big Red One (1980)

by on 2010/11/04

As a boy, I never had much use for the idea of an army.  I didn’t see the point in a draft, mandatory service, being barked at . . . never mind risking life and limb.  Despite that attitude, however, I never forgot one of my dad’s stories.  He said in boot camp trainees were given a shovel and told to dig a protective hole in the ground as a tank bore down on them.  That scene played out in my mind like some kind of playground fantasy and I wondered if, perhaps, war might have its excitements after all.

The candidates for this effort’s particular excitements are the members of the “Fighting First” infantry division, distinguished by a titular badge of courage, The Big Red One.  Among them are:  Griff (Mark Hamill), a “cowardly” cartoonist; Johnson (Kelly Ward), a farmer; Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco), a streetwise jazzman; and Zab (Robert Carradine), narrator and aspiring writer.  Leading them through the Second World War is their unnamed Sergeant, played by Lee Marvin, a veteran of numerous genre classics (The Dirty Dozen, M Squad, Seven Men from Now) and WWII itself.

The relative youth of his squad is striking.  They still work to justify the killing required of them.  For levity, they want to talk salaciously about women, but have nothing at all to say.  They have yet to find their place in the world, and need their Sergeant’s guidance, whether they know it or not.  In turn he needs them too.  At their age, fighting in the First World War, the Sergeant made mistakes that can’t be undone, and yet might be repaid.

In their time together, the team becomes renowned for their success in surviving.  Other more anonymous soldiers nickname them The Four Horsemen.  Still, how long can their legend last, and what will it cost them personally?

I’d never seen this movie before, though I knew a bit about its troubled production.  My impressions were informed by Saving Private Ryan, a film similar in effect but greater in visceral impact.  Unlike Spielberg’s work, however, director Samuel Fuller delivered something less of whole cloth than psychologically scattershot, vignettes from his own memories of war.

These plot fragments employ a variety of devices to keep us guessing, unsteady.  The attention to historical detail, while authentifying, is also distancing.  This trip won’t wait for you to catch on or catch up.  While we may learn their comrades’ names, the Four Horsemen make no such investment.  Their immersion in death makes them callous in defense.  Their moments of respite are rare, brief, random, and likely to end in fresh terror.

Most aspects convey a tension in their chaos:  mood swings and misunderstandings, accidentally killing innocents and failing to shoot at the enemy, caring for weapons and disrespecting the dead.  Imagery I’d expect from Neorealism here infest a “boy’s adventure” tale:  a child with his mother’s corpse in tow, a shellshocked child waiting for his turn in an oven, the soldier who snaps in the face of such atrocities.  Rarely have I seen a comparable range of unjudged extremes within a single piece.

Perhaps by design there is little sense of progress in narrative or character.  Whether the movie is confusing by intent, or as a function of its theatrical cut is unclear.  I found it to tread quite closely to horror in its depiction of the victims:  the persecuted, the marginalized, and the soldiers themselves.  There’s no suggestion of good or bad, just the director’s steady eye observing how people survive in wartime.

Ultimately in The Big Red One, we see that war can be many things, including exciting, though it rarely has an upside.  Where sanity is uncertain, tanks passing overhead may be the smallest thrill (or threat) of all.  For these heroes the only excitement — the only so-called glory — is survival.

* * *

Rated PG/14A for coarse language, disturbing scenes, and violence

113 minutes (theatrical version)

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