Den barske elite
Red One” was a surprising find on the List. There are plenty of war movies, but
war movies about the soldiers rather than the war or the concept of war are rare,
as if the lack of that higher motive somehow invalidates the movie. Not that
this movie is pro-war, but it is not outright anti-war either. It is simply
about the soldiers who fight it. But then again, maybe it is actually about war
as a concept…
Fuller, the director and writer, was himself a soldier with the US. 1st
Infantry Division during the Second World War and “The Big Red One” is largely
based on his own experiences, from the North African campaign through Italy,
Normandy and the capitulation of Germany. It follows a squad led by a man known
only as the Sergeant (Lee Marvin), a WWI veteran. There is a core group, Griff
(Mark Hamill), Zab (Robert Carradine), Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco) and Johnson
(Kelly Ward) who are there from the beginning and a score of nameless faces in
the form of replacements who quickly disappear in various gruesome ways.
is episodic in the sense that each scene is a progression through the various
theaters, but the story within each scene is largely repetitive. The squad is
fighting, people around them are dying, death is random and then there is a
break in the fighting where normality or a sort of normality gets a brief
moment. The scenery changes, North Africa looks different from Belgium, but
little else. The ennui is emphasized by the static situation of the squad.
Nobody changes rank, the discussion is largely the same, the jokes run on the
same themes. Sure, there are events such as the woman giving birth in a tank,
the old women’s party in Sicily or the boy the Sergeant find in Falkenau, but
even these events follow the pattern of normal-world events colliding with the
war to create a bizarre mesh.
parallel to “The Big Red One” is the mini-series “Band of Brothers” and it is
tempting to consider “The Big Red One” as the inferior in that comparison. Although
there is a similar progression through events and the same small group of
soldiers, “Band of Brothers of not static to the same decree and it lets us
know the characters in a way we never get to know those of “The Big Red One”. I
watched the “Reconstruction” version, which adds another 47 minutes and several
locations to the story, but it makes little difference. None of those add to
the picture of a static state of things. The soldiers are numbed by the war,
they become automatons and it is all about fighting, surviving and getting the
best out of the breaks they get.
In a sense
that makes the movie boring. We get the point early on, we stop caring about
new phases, just hope none of the principal characters get shot in some
pointless firefight. The battle scenes are realistic and dramatic and very loud,
but they are also repetitive at their core to the extent that I just wanted
them to be over with, mostly because of the risk to the soldiers having them go
I do think
this is actually the point and maybe even the reason it is on the List. The
ennui and the madness of war is a state that is almost impossible for outsiders
to understand. How can being under fire be boring? But “The Big Red One” gives
us a window into that, an understanding that takes away all the romance but
also does not make its characters monsters. This is an understanding Fuller likely
had and this is him offering it to us.
Lee Marvin got
so type cast as the weather-beaten soldier that it almost feels like a cliché to
see him here, yet he does the job. On the other hand, what is Luke Skywalker
doing here? Mark Hamill here was quite a surprise, but the Luke Skywalker chock
only lasted a few minutes, then he was Private Griff.
I doubt “The
Big Red One” will ever be my favorite. I do like “Band of Brothers”, but for
exactly the reasons that make these two different. It is not a bad movie, and
it does work as I believe intended, so it is a moderate recommendation from me.