“The first Infantry Division. The fighting first. The Big Red 1”
This week we’re going to take a look at one of the true fucking great war flicks of American cinema. Now, it’s essential to note from the outset that I’m discussing “The Reconstruction” version of the “The Big Red One” (1980), not to be confused with the inferior original version that stood from 1980 to 2004. Some historical context is necessary. Writer/Director, Sam Fuller aimed to create a film based on his experience in World War II, fighting with The 1st Infantry Division of The United States Army. Nicknamed “The Big Red One”, The 1st Infantry Division is the oldest continuously serving, mechanized division in the American Army. After nearly 30 years of stop and start production, Fuller was finally given studio support for his passion project. What he conceived of and originally produced was a sprawling 4 and 1/2 hour epic. It was fucking torn apart by studio executives who were risk-adverse due to the cost and potential MPAA rating of such an epic. The powers that be took the film from Fuller and re-cut it to an acceptable 113 minutes which carried a PG-13 rating.
Despite that fact that the version savaged by the studio still wound up being critically lauded is a testament to the great work done by Fuller. Still, it was widely known that a superior version existed. It took Time magazine’s film critic Richard Schickel and a group of editors to unearth the original footage and piece together Fuller’s vision, despite the fact that Fuller had died several years earlier. When “The Big Red One: The Reconstruction” (1980) premiered in 2004, it finally hailed as the great film it was originally intended to be. The restored, 180-ish minute, Rated R version is not to be fucked with. Accept no substitute.
Sgt. Possum (Lee Marvin) leads his squad of infantrymen through North Africa, to Sicily, all the way to the beaches of Normandy to the liberation of Falkenau concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. The squads’ notable mainstays include Pvt. Griff (Mark Hamill), Pvt. Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco)), Pvt. Zab (Robert Carradine), who serves as the narrator. These mainstays grow increasingly weary of the new recruits that populate the squad only to die shortly. The nature of the mainstay’s opinion of war, and more specifically killing, is the real journey here. War is not glorified. What is killing ? What is murder? How precarious is the line between the two? What justifies a man’s participation in both? Fuller’s vision is highly complicated and decidedly non-didactic.
There are a few performances to point out here. Forget “Star Wars” and his voice work, Mark Hamill delivers the best performance of his career. Same goes for Robert Carradine who proves he can fight more than The Alpha Betas. Of course, Lee Fucking Marvin stands tall as the great Hollywood tough guy here in his most thoughtful and nuanced role. These fantastic performances are wrapped up in a brilliant film that runs the gamut of emotions effortlessly. While it’s an action packed film that rivals the compelling action of the best WWII films, there are moments remind me of the esoteric and thoughtful meditation scenes that dominated Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” (1998). “The Big Red One: The Reconstruction” (1980) is true classic of American Cinema that Samuel Fuller fought to see realized for nearly 50 years only to have his vision ultimately fulfilled after his death. – LEE
Samuel Fuller: Wrote and Directed the standout film-noir, spy-thriller “Pickup On South Street” (1953), “Shock Corridor” (1963) and “The Naked Kiss” (1964)
Lee Marvin: As Henry “Rico” Fardan in the great Western “The Professionals” (1966). Major John Reisman in the all-time classic “The Dirty Dozen” (1967) and as Walker in the amazing revenge-thriller “Point Blank” (1967).
Robert Carradine: As Jim Crandell in the fun schlock-fest “Cannonball” (1976) and as Lewis Skolnick in the comedy classic “Revenge Of The Nerds” (1984).
Mark Hamill: He’s in something coming out this Christmas. Haven’t heard much about it.
(Lee Ostler is a musician, avid fight fan, man-of-many-words, and huge fan of fine cinema. We think it’s too cute that he has a Minor in Film Studies, and are tickled pink that he now gets a chance to shine. So, each Thursday, he will start our minds rolling for the weekend with another gem of a film we can hunt down. Some will be easier to find than others, but that’s part of the game. Get the home theatre ready, pop the corn, and prepare to see some friggin’ awesome films)