[Originally published as part of the “MSN Cadillac” series.]
Saving Private Ryan has the budget and the production values, but if you want a World War II story from a real vet’s perspective, Sam Fuller is still the man and The Big Red One, drawn from his own war experiences, is the film.
Robert Carradine (standing in for the cigar-chomping, pulp-fiction-writing Fuller), Mark Hamill, Bobby Di Cicco and Kelly Ward are the green recruits who become hardened survivors under the gruff tutelage of Lee Marvin’s tough, taciturn Sergeant. We never learn his name — this World War I retread is simply Sarge, and Sarge teaches these raw recruits that in war you don’t murder, you kill. The only glory in war is surviving, in Fuller’s clear-eyed portrait of combat, and this quartet of survivors becomes Sarge’s “Four Horsemen,” the eternal figures in a rifle squad filled out by a couple hundred replacements whose names they finally give up trying to learn.
“This is a fictional life based on factual death,” begins the film. We land in North Africa for a trial under fire, scramble through the mountain villages of Italy and charge Omaha Beach on D-Day, all on a fraction of the budget and a sliver of the cast that Steven Spielberg had at his disposal for Saving Private Ryan.
The Big Red One — especially the expanded 2004 “Reconstruction,” which fills in details and fills out experiences — has the scope of an epic sculpted with a spare, suggestive visual style. Isolated, deserted locales dominate the soldiers’ odyssey. Death is abrupt and brutal, ready to strike at any moment. It verges on the unreal, and these boys learn to respond instinctively to the unreality of it all.
A World War II vet himself, Marvin’s face is a road map of the war — the worn, battered, yet unusually calm and warm face of a survivor. His heart is hidden under a helmet and three-day stubble, but the weary serenity behind his eyes can turn warm and protective when the children of liberated villages follow Sarge around like puppies and he wordlessly adopts them for a few heartbreaking moments.
Sam Fuller’s most autobiographical film, The Big Red One is an old-fashioned war thriller, a portrait of the insanity of combat and one of the great films not just about World War II, but the experience of war itself.