Old 05-19-2009, 03:35 PM
Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One

The Big Red One (1980)

I think it acts as a testimony to a film's characters when you finish watching it and can only recall one of the characters' names. It's true that the main character of Samuel Fuller's "The Big Red One" is an unnamed Sergeant, but he is followed by four troops that he has been with since the beginning of World War II and they come to be important in each other lives, so why is it that in the end, we know absolutely nothing about any of these characters?

The "story" takes place during World War II and basically consists of following around "The Big Red One" also known as the "Fighting First" as they start out in North Africa. The company is made up of an unnamed sergeant (Lee Marvin), his four main soldiers, Pvt. Griff (Mark Hamill), Pvt. Zab (Robert Carradine), Pvt. Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco), and Pvt. Johnson (Kelly Ward), as well as numerous other soldiers and replacements. From Africa, they go to several European locations including Normandy, Belgium, and finally, Germany.

I had mentioned that I only remembered one of these names, which was Pvt. Griff, mainly because he was played by Mark Hamill (who, at the time, was in between films of the "Star Wars" trilogy). The rest of the names I had to look up on IMDB. The film's big problems were in its characters and its story. The characters are never given anything intelligent to say, and whenever they do get to have a conversation, it is about nothing of the least importance; nothing that allows us to get to know them or form any kind of attachment to them.

This lack of attachment to the characters meant that any of them could have been picked off at any time and it would not have made the least bit of difference. As far as the audience is concerned, the "main characters" might as well have been the nameless replacements that are brought in occasionally. The actors themselves don't even seem to be trying very hard to create a kind of character that the audience could bond with. The only one who tried to give his character a little bit of personality was Hamill's Pvt. Griff, but even that came up a little short. The rest of the cast gave very perfunctory performances, which is especially disappointing from a veteran actor like Lee Marvin.

The second problem came with its story which comes off as a loose collection of short experiences in the second World War tied together only by these five characters. It proceeds with them talking to each other for short amounts of time followed by battle sequences that are choppily edited together making it very difficult to tell who is fighting who and where.

The production value on some of the battle scenes was good, but the editing managed to ruin what could have been really strong clashes. I say some of the battle scenes because one of the scenes that had be the most perplexed was the invasion of Normandy. This was scaled way down to make it look like it was only one boatload of soldiers invading the beach. Perhaps the budget was tight, but it shouldn't have been that hard to find people to dress up as American or German soldiers to run around the beach for an hour or two.

This film was originally released in 1980 at a runtime of 113 minutes. In 2004, an extended version was released that contained about 49 minutes of additional footage, bringing the runtime up to 162 minutes. I can't claim to know what scenes were added to the extended addition as I've never seen the original cut, but I can only imagine that it would have felt even choppier and the characters even less developed with a shorter runtime.

It is amazing to learn that Fuller's original cut of this film ran for over four hours. He probably wanted to include more incidents that the "Fighting First" experienced, but I can't imagine anyone wanting to see more footage from this film, especially if it continues in the same manner where we don't get to know anything about the characters and are unable to form any kind of attachment to them.

Then again, there is a chance that Fuller's original cut contains fully-rounded characters with personalities along with meaningful dialogue. You would think that the people who took so much time to restore the footage for the reconstructed version would try to choose scenes that added something to the film and its characters, but instead, they probably just added more tales to this collection that meanders from scene to scene. I guess we'll never know what Fuller was trying to say with this film until his original cut is fully restored, but, let's just say that even if that happens, I won't be too anxious to see it. 2/4 stars.
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