While his field of interest may lie in the controversial, low-budget thrillers and experimental efforts, Samuel Fuller was no stranger to accepting the help of Hollywood. For The Big Red One, he does not shun the unique style that made him so incredible but applies it to the war epic based on his own story. As best he can, anyway. The Big Red One is based upon the memoirs of Fuller’s time in war and spurred on by Lee Marvin’s “red one” to marker the First Infantry Division. Pairing these two together, there is enough detail provided early on to suggest the regret and burning horrors placed on the mind of many who served their country.
Assembling a band of unlikely lads and their dedicated commander, The Big Red One has a squad that feel like extensions of Fuller. Pvt. Zab (David Carradine) is the most on the nose of them all. He is the reflection Fuller feels for his experience in the war. When pressed for why he joined the war, his response is simple. “To come out with a war novel, meathead.” Fuller’s augmentation of his own personality, spreading it out over five individuals, makes for a handful of strong scenes. Rather than the inner turmoil of one man, one man is presented as five argumentative comrades. Pvt. Griff (Mark Hamill) is almost immediately shown to be the guilt Fuller feels. He is hesitant, sparing the lives of Frenchmen when ordered to fire. Cowardly, too, his flight or fight response always ends in the former. The rest are forgotten, even Marvin to some degree, who is relegated to bumbling old sergeant, making his way back to the platoon after suffering wounds, being put out to pasture, and everything else that tries to dry out his luck. No such moment seemingly appears, The Big Red One is too light for that.
There are some novel, Hollywood moments. That much is expected. The raising of the arms, cheering and making merry as optimistic, upbeat music plays while Frenchmen and Americans lay their weapons down and embrace. It ruins the prior moments of tension, and it is where Fuller’s pacing fails. There are parallels drawn, almost with the same dialogue, between American and German forces. Like T. E. Lawrence, The Sergeant (Marvin) staggers across the beautiful desert and back to his convoy of merry men. The Big Red One shows the monotony of war through its frequent repetition, but it also becomes a bore to watch. There are only so many times you can storm a beach, push forward, run from the enemy, and head back to the ship before it starts to kick off once more. With pacing this jagged, it is hard to conjure up any emotional connection to the many strands of Fuller’s personality, even if his story is one of tremendous interest at times.
Scale of this nature may be grand, but it is a façade for rather empty conventions. Fuller has an interesting, first-hand story to tell through his own brutal experiences of fighting in the Second World War, but does not have the pacing or power to bring the horrors to life. It is heavy material in the right hands, but the constraint of the Hollywood style marks The Big Red One as a valiant troupe of heroes when Fuller doesn’t seem to feel that way. Compare this with The Steel Helmet, which gets to the core of its troubles and stays there, gutted by its reality and the hopelessness of war. Perhaps Fuller had time to think on his reasons for fighting and surviving so long, but I am not as convinced by The Big Red One as I am of his other, valiant experiments in showing the hell of war.