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 film doesn’t present a very gung-ho portrayal of its American GIs, who are life-sized regular guys who prove very adept at the number one skill of a soldier: staying alive. Pvt. Griff (Mark Hamill) is a sensitive lad who’s not sure if he’s a pacifist or a coward, at least until he reaches the concentration camp and learns the real difference between killing and murder. Private Zab (Robert Carradine) is a writer and the film’s narrator. Pvt. Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco) is an enterprising Sicilian whose horse trading skills help them track down a pesky German emplacement. Pvt. Johnson (Kelly Ward) is a farm boy whose medical skills will come in handy when they stumble across a very pregnant woman in France.
The rest of the soldiers in their unit, mostly faceless replacements, come and go as the four veterans go out of their way not to get too chummy with men they figure will probably be dead before too long.
The film is light on major battle sequences, which is probably due in part to the movie’s limited budget but also probably true to real experience of the average soldier. Other than the disastrous battle at Kasserine Pass and the D-Day landings at Omaha Beach, the rest of the film consists of mostly minor skirmishes across Africa, Italy, France, Germany and Czechoslovakia.
The five main characters are pretty much stock characters familiar to most war movie aficionados, but the film gives us time to get to know them and allows the characters to emerge as individuals behind the clichés.
The version I recently watched (and the only version currently available on DVD) is the “director’s cut” (which was actually assembled after Sam Fuller’s death). It runs about forty minutes longer than the theatrical release. Since it’s been about twenty years since I last saw the film, I can’t pinpoint which scenes are new, but I’m guessing that one of the additions is a series of scenes involving a German soldier named Schroeder (Siegfried Rauch), the Sergeant’s opposite number who manages to encounter the first squad several times over the course of the war. He’s an ardent Nazi who murders at least two people during the film who openly criticize Hitler. Beyond the fact that his repeated appearances stretch the bounds of credibility, Schroeder ends up being a stock villain whose presence adds very little to the film, although his unrepentant evil adds a little texture to the scene where the first squad soldiers try to save his life after the war is over.
With or without the additional scenes, however, this is a deeply personal look at World War II by someone who lived through it. Compared with The Longest Day, which was a broad look at one day from literally hundreds of viewpoints, The Big Red One is an intimate view that spans the course of the entire war. Both films are worthy additions to any war movie library.