Wednesday 19 July 2023

The Big Red One (1980)


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“The Big 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…

Samuel 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.

The story 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.

The obvious 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 on.

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.    


  1. You have to think that this movie serves as sort of a bridge from the very hawkish "War = glory" films previous to the "war is hell" films of today. I don't know that we get Saving Private Ryan, or even Full Metal Jacket without both this and Apocalypse Now.

    1. That is likely very true. It takes an odd middle ground by not judging war but merely accepting it as a part of life for better or worse, exactly like the soldiers would have been thinking. Still, although we follow the soldiers, there is a statement here about war that is subtle yet very strong. The ennui.