FF86 - The Big Red One

Intro by Adam Pranica

Samuel Fuller was all but retired from directing feature films in 1980. His previous film Shark was a Burt Reynolds vehicle that came out in 1969, but finally an opportunity presented itself: Today's film is a script Fuller had been trying to get made for over 20 years. After scouting locations for Warner Brothers in the late 1950s, the studio decided that the film was more useful as a tax write-off than a viable project, sending it to development hell from which only Peter Bogdanovich and eventually producer Gene Corman could resurrect it, and the trick was to shoot in Israel and redress Israel to be every country the squad in the film visits.

That way, on a typically Fullerian shoestring budget, a war picture of particularly huge scope could be filmed, and that is not to imply the script is not a sweeping epic so much as a loose memoir of Fuller's time in World War II. Serving in the 16th Infantry Regiment of the Army's 1st Infantry Division, he had seen action in North Africa, Italy, France, and Belgium and then liberated a Nazi concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. The film focuses on four enlisted men played by Mark Hamill, Robert Carradine, Bobby Di Cicco and Kelly Ward, and their sergeant played by Lee motherfucking Marvin.

There is not a lot to say about the plot: We all know that it is pretty extraordinary for anyone to have seen World War II from as many perspectives as these guys did, so the film kind of takes that for granted and hangs out for a few moments of varying significance in each locale. The Robert Carradine character, our Fuller stand-in, sees some success with his novel-writing as the story progresses, and Mark Hamill with his Empire Strikes Back scars has some hesitation early in the film, but gets over it pretty quickly. The Italian guy does some cultural interfacing in Sicily, you have seen these tropes before, but the movie doesn't really care about them and the movie doesn't really seem like it has an axe to grind.

1980 was a strange place for this film to land when its earliest iteration had happened in the late 1950s. Lee Marvin seems too old, especially in the opening flashback to World War I, filmed in black & white so you know it is the past. But there is old-man Lee Marvin, as much as Sergeant, then as he is in this movie. Carradine somehow has an unlimited supply of cigars. Much of the film's drama rests in wondering whether he will be diagnosed with mouth cancer before the movie is over. There is a spectacularly cheaply done D-Day scene, a lot of weird sexism and a lot of jotted-off memories that don't really go anywhere.

The final set piece though, the liberation of the camp, really comes out of nowhere and pegs the needle emotionally like it really should! Fuller was Jewish and the meaning of the camp is weightier for that. Mark Hamill comes through with a performance that is dripping with pathos and Lee Marvin, shockingly, tenderly comforts a child in the boy's final hours of his life. You don't see this coming and for that reason it might be a perfect simulation of what the war might have meant for a soldier who only at the end truly realizes how grave and evil he was fighting.

Surviving is the only glory in war, if you know what I mean. Today on Friendly Fire: The Big Red One.

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