Some films are better in theory than reality like, say, Sam Fuller’s The Big Red One. In 1980, Fuller, the cigar-chomping director of such rousingly pulpy and far-fetched B movies as Shock Corridor and House of Bamboo, made a World War II epic drawn from his own combat experiences. It was acclaimed for its anecdotal “realism,” but it was also drastically reedited by its studio, Lorimar. Now, the full 158-minute version of The Big Red One has been reassembled, restoring a gritty gem of offbeat Hollywood classicism to its full glory.
At least so goes the theory. If you choose to see The Big Red One, there are certain things you should prepare for. The American platoon is filled with incongruously nonchalant young actors like Mark Hamill, who gawks, and Robert Carradine, who smirks, all the while delivering cornball-tough dialogue that makes them sound less like hardened grunts than the Jets and the Sharks. The battle scenes, with their greasepaint grime and badly lit prop rubble, practically seem to be taking place on stage; they have no terror, no existential grip. As the film sprawls from Africa to Sicily to Omaha Beach and beyond, it’s formless in the worst way: a rough cut in search of a design. Did I mention the effeminate Nazi who coos, “I adore supermen”?
Lee Marvin, it must be said, is terrific as the platoon commander (his burnt-tobacco growl is the essence of pitiless male nobility), and Fuller deserves props for the film’s one sustained sequence: the D-Day attack, in which the platoon gets pinned on the beach for a hellish eternity. If you don’t elect to watch The Big Red One through the lens of Sam Fuller’s mystique, however, you’ll realize that it has been celebrated in ways that essentially make virtues of its flaws.