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THE BIG RED ONE
Special Edition

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Lee Marvin, Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine, Bobby Di Ciccio, Kelly Ward
Director:  Samuel Fuller
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Warner Bros.
Features:  None
Length:  162 Minutes
Release Date:  Amy 3, 2005

Film ***1/2

There's something different about watching a war movie made by a filmmaker whom you know was actually there.  You can't help but sit up and take a little more notice, and really pay attention to what he has to say.  For example, I personally find Oliver Stone's Platoon to be the most intense movie watching experience out of all the many great Vietnam war pictures.  You just know, in that type of movie, that the actions and characters are going to be a little more real, and the message is going to be a little more potent.

Like Terrence Malick did recently with The Thin Red Line, legendary Hollywood outsider Samuel Fuller came out of a long, self imposed hiatus as a filmmaker to produce a war movie.  The Big Red One, which he wrote and directed, draws heavily on his own experiences as a member of the Fighting First serving in World War II.  The resulting movie is quite a bit different from the style of picture he was famed for making, but it is also one of the truly great war films.

Fuller tells the tale of the first infantry, known as the Big Red One because of the insignia on their patches.  The story centers on the top four guys in the division, and their crusty, battle weary sergeant (Marvin, in arguably his finest work as an actor).  Fuller takes these guys on a grand tour of the big war, allowing them to be present at all of the key events.  They fight Rommel in North Africa.  They invade Sicily.  They storm the beach on D-Day.  And, in courageous and brutally unflinching honesty, the men even find themselves looking at the remains of a concentration camp. 

The movie suggests that often a bit of hindsight is required for soldiers to understand their war.  They confess early on they don't fully get what they're doing, and I wager none of them fully grasp the concept until the end when they see the concentration camp.  The point Fuller makes, I think, is that it's easy for those of us who have never been in a war to justify and moralize, but even in the most necessary of fights like WW II, it's completely different for those men and women who have to actually pull the trigger. 

Two aspects of the movie really drive this point home:  an ironic juxtaposition where the American sergeant and a German commander, on opposite sides of the desert, make the claim that there is a huge difference between murder and what they do.  You don't murder the enemy, in other words.  You just kill them.  Secondly, the character of Griff (Hamill), who is the team's best sharpshooter, suddenly finds himself unable to kill anybody.  It's not that he's a coward, he's simply become far too aware to just remain a killing machine, even if it means he's now a liability to his fellow men.  If you are one of many who assumed Mark Hamill wasn't all that much of an actor, you may just find his work in this picture a pleasant revelation.

But the movie is more than just the fighting and terrors of war, and our men find themselves from time to time involved in a little misadventure on the side.  One of these is the film's best sequence.  After successfully fending off a German ambush, our intrepid heroes find themselves having to deliver the baby of a young French woman inside a burned out shell of a tank.  The men clamor for hot water they don't have, are forced to use prophylactics in place of rubber gloves, and try to remember what the French word for "push" is.

Samuel Fuller spent his career on the outside of Hollywood, making films the way he wanted to see them made.  Some of his pictures are quite challenging, striking a skillful balance between deliberate camp and shock, and between real emotion and melodrama, all done with a minimum of subtlety.  But he really produced his crowning achievement with this film, and if this is the one he's most remembered for, so be it.  For the most part, he broke with his signature stylings to deliver a powerful and entertaining war movie.

There was a moment, however, that I really loved:  a woman fighting on the side of the Allies in a mental hospital that was taken over by the Nazis.  She played crazy, and danced around with a doll while singing a nonsensical song, until she could get close enough to an enemy soldier, when she would produce a straight razor from the back of the doll and slit his throat.  That was a decidedly Samuel Fuller touch.

Video ***

Despite an occasional bit of grain, this is a surprisingly good transfer from Warner.  I think this might be a good disc to use in the argument for anamorphic transfers, even if you don't yet have a widescreen TV.  Compare this film with any other film from the 80s on DVD that did NOT get the enhancement, and you'll see a big difference.  When anamorphic enhancement is used, it means a brand new transfer was struck.  As such, this film is much cleaner, with greater detail and sharpness, and stronger colors with less bleeding than say, The Breakfast Club, which was a disc obviously struck from an existing master. 

Audio ***

The remastered 5.1 soundtrack is quite lively for an older film as well, with plenty of good battle sequences making selective and effective use of the single rear channel.  Dynamics are fairly good, and dialogue is clean and clear throughout.  Occasionally, the music sounds a tad thin, which is really the only place the audio shows its age.  All in all, a good effort.

Features ****  

This two disc offering from Warner boasts some impressive extras...Disc One features a new commentary track by film critic and historian Richard Schickel, who produced the reconstruction of this film.  It's a pleasant and informative listen.

Disc Two contains some alternate scenes, a before and after restoration comparison, a documentary on the reconstruction efforts and one on Samuel Fuller himself, a war department film on the Fighting First, a promo reel from 1980, trailer and radio spots, as well as the reconstruction trailer and a stills gallery.

Summary:

Samuel Fuller created an entertaining and influential war film with his masterpiece, and managed to keep an honest feel to the story by drawing on his own experiences.  This is one of the best war movies ever made, and has become the crowning achievement in an unusual, though important, filmmaking career.

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