The Big Red One, Samuel Fuller’s fictionalized retelling of his own experiences as a member of the 1st Infantry Division in World War II, is a particularly effective grunts-eye view of the war, despite its somewhat meager budget. It follows an unnamed Sergeant (Lee Marvin) and four soldiers of his “first squad” who manage to survive the war with him. They join him as inexperienced “wet-noses” before the invasion of North Africa and follow him to the very end of the war, when they liberate a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia.
The 24-hour race in an around the city of Le Mans every June is still considered one of the ultimate tests of driver, crews and cars, but in 1970, when filming on this movie began, it was even more so. This was before many of the safety features drivers now take for granted and when the cars were insanely powerful and fast. The Mulsanne straight was still more than two miles of flat-out, unbroken driving, with cars reaching over 230 mph before braking for the next curve.
Steve McQueen didn’t write, direct or produce this film, but it was still in every way his baby. He wanted to make the ultimate racing film. When not acting, McQueen raced cars and motorcycles for real, much to the horror of the studio executives who coveted the box office he brought in. McQueen was no dilettante, either. He was a serious driver who was competetive in virtually everything he raced and was well respected by his fellow racers. To them, he was just one of the guys who also did some acting on the side.