Any movie that has Mark Hamill sharing top billing with Lee friggin' Marvin is a movie I wanna see. After watching The Big Red One, I can't help but wonder if Hamill would have avoided typecasting purgatory if this criminally over-looked war film had gotten the attention it deserved back in 1980. Most likely he would he have been offered more substantial roles instead of bargain basement dreck like The Guyver and Slipstream.
Especially when you witness his fantastic performance here as Pvt. Griff, sharpshooter for the U.S. First Infantry Division. The oldest division in the United States Army, this outfit denoted their elite status by wearing, you guessed it, a big, red "1" on their shoulders. What distinguishes this movie from most other war flicks is that director Samuel Fuller based the story upon his own experiences during World War II as a member of this very same outfit. As such, this epic plays out like the inspiration behind HBO's Band of Brothers from 2001.
It starts with a fantastic segment shot in beautifully-stark black and white which takes place during the tail end of World War I. We first see the ubiquitous Sergeant (played by Lee Marvin in a terrific walk-softly- and-carry-a-big-stick performance ) stumbling across a ruined landscape in France, seemingly non-plussed by all the chaos around him.
After an encounter with a shell-shocked horse leaves him without a rifle, he's forced to contend with a lone German soldier who babbles on about "the end of the war" and then tries to surrender. Since the Sergeant has seen this bluff countless times before and kills the German with a knife and then returns to HQ, where he learns that the armistice did indeed did go into effect four hours ago. From thereon in, The Big Red One is preoccupied by this heavy theme: was the German killed in defense of country and kin or was he flat-out murdered?
The film then jumps ahead twenty-four years to 1942 with the world embroiled in yet another global conflict. The Sergeant is back leading a platoon of young elites, some of whom eventually distinguish themselves as his "Four Horsemen". They include the aforementioned Mark Hamill as Griff, an idealistic, artistic kid who keeps wresting with his conscience, Pvt. Zab (Robert Carradine of Revenge of the Nerds fame) a cocky, brash gung-ho punk, Pvt.Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco) an Italian-American jokester and Pvt. Johnson (Kelly Ward) a simple farm boy who's trying to cope with, well with everything.
After landing in Algeria a skirmish with the Vichy French results in a wasteful loss of innocent lives. Soon Griff becomes obsessed with the concept of justified killing versus stone-cold murder. The platoon then goes on to spearhead countless other now-famous military campaigns, including but not limited to Sicily, Omaha Beach, and Czechoslovakia. The film culminates with the liberation of the Falkenau concentration camp where our heroes witness unspeakable horrors and then try to come to terms with what they've lived through in order to get there.
For some viewers, The Big Red One will be an off-putting experience and not for the reasons you might think. For many, myself included, the harrowing realism of contemporary war movies such as Saving Private Ryan tends to diminish older films. Even though Fuller likely saw a lot of first-hand action during World War II the battle scenes here are static, stagy and pale in comparison to more modern depictions. But perhaps that's the point since more realistic horrors might come off as salacious and hit a bit too close to home.
The film also has a very staccato flow, giving the impression of short vignettes adapted from stitched-together diary entries. In fact, then entire parallel story featuring the German soldiers is completely superfluous and probably should have been jettisoned. It's as if Fuller wanted to shoe-horn as many tidbits into the film as possible regardless of whether or not it contributed to the film's story or overarching theme.
Just like in Patton, the glaringly-obvious historical inaccuracies pissed me off to no end. The German "Tigers", for example, are actually Israeli tanks modified from American-built Shermans. Frankly, that's just inexcusable. As soon as I see stuff like this I'm immediately reminded of the film's fictional facade.
At first the movie's propensity for disjointed and oddball moments began to aggravate me. The Sergeant's squirm-inducing encounter with a German doctor and subsequent Bedouin disguise, the "Tank birth" sequence, the prepubescent sniper, and a ballet-like throat-slashing montage in a Belgian insane asylum were all so bizarre and disturbing that I wanted to write it off as Fuller's attempt at dark humor. But then I remembered that truth is a lot weirder than fiction and I can only assume that Fuller either experienced these strange things first hand or it happened to someone he knew.
If anything, The Big Red One certainly illustrates that war isn't just hell, it's inexplicably senseless. This is really emphasized during the film's epilogue in which the squad marches through the very same field where the Sergeant killed that German soldier back in 1918. They stumble upon a war memorial which sparks a haunting exchange between Johnson and the Sergeant:
Johnson: Would you look at how fast they put up the names of all our guys who got killed?
The Sergeant: That's a World War I memorial.
Johnson: But the names are the same.
The Sergeant: They always are.