“I was driven to turn my wartime experiences into a movie in order to convey the physical and mental upheaval of men at war. That’s how I ultimately came to grips with my experiences. Tactics, strategy, troop movements on maps were for military historians. My screenplay reduced the war to a small squad of First Division soldiers − a veteran sergeant and four young dogfaces − and their emotions in wartime. Each fictional character was an amalgam of real soldiers I’d known.”
“If there is one moment in the new version of Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One that I am likely to remember and treasure above all others, it is a fleeting insert in a scene which is already justly famous among film buffs. A new recruit to the World War II team known as the Big Red One is immediately branded a naïve outsider. Over-eager to please, he goes to fetch some water and, off-screen, steps on a mine. The Sergeant (Lee Marvin) races over and assures him that the explosion was only designed to castrate him. As this no-nonsense father-figure unceremoniously throws one severed testicle away, the boy gropes at his bloody groin and – here is the part unseen in 1980 – exclaims ecstatically: ‘I’ve still got my cock!’ We will never see this minor character again, but his cry is indelible. Is this macho talk? Absolutely not. Fuller’s vision of war – the film is broadly faithful to his real-life experiences – has nothing heroic or triumphant about it. The politics that puts these men into the field is unfathomable to them, and what goes on in the heat of battle is unendingly absurd, surreal, insane.”
“Logically, then, The Big Red One is the story of survivors, Fuller included. He sees it that way himself: “These are the guys who made it. Even if they had to use other guys to live, they made it. I kept away from what I think was all the old corn, like a man getting shot when he’s reading a letter from his sweetheart − and don’t forget, I’m guilty of that too, in other pictures. I decided I’ll do something that I don’t think I’ve seen in any motion picture, in any country − where you follow several men, in this case five, and they all live. Have you seen one?”
“Manny Farber, who more or less discovered Fuller back in the early ’50s, has written eloquently about both his ‘comic-book lack of self-consciousness’ and his conceptual brilliance (‘Blunt and abstract, he often measures a scene into stylized positions and chunks of time’). Together these factors contrive to challenge some of our received ideas of what artists and poets are supposed to be like, particularly in rural Manhattan. Fuller’s reputation is that of a primitive, and a friend has rightly called The Big Red One an antique, a ’50s war film. Yet to my mind, it’s also the most intelligent American movie in any genre I’ve seen this year.”
“The Big Red One simmered in Fuller’s brain for at least three decades, and he always regarded it as his magnum opus. It can’t contain all his ambitions, which must have accumulated over the years in layers, some of them contradictory − which may account in part for the film’s stylistic shifts. In 1980 I concluded in my review for the Soho News that this ’50s war movie might be something of an antique, but it was ‘also the most intelligent American movie in any genre I’ve seen this year.’ Encountering a much longer version a quarter century later, I find it looks less like an antique, and its eccentricities now seem timeless: few American directors in the ’50s were quite as allegorical or as surrealist as Fuller. And if a more intelligent and, yes, contemporary American movie has been released this year, I haven’t seen it.”
“Talking with Fuller, I quoted Truffaut’s dictum that all war movies are pro-war, because no matter what their message is, they make the action look exciting. Fuller snorted. ‘Pro or anti, what the hell difference does it make to the guy who gets his ass shot off? The movie is very simple. It’s a series of combat experiences, and the times of waiting in between. Lee Marvin plays a carpenter of death. The sergeants of this world have been dealing death to young men for 10,000 years. He’s a symbol of all those years and all those sergeants, no matter what their names were or what they called their rank in other languages. That’s why he has no name in the movie. The movie deals with death in a way that might be unfamiliar to people who know nothing of war except what they learned in war movies. I believe that fear doesn’t delay death, and so it is fruitless. A guy is hit. So, he’s hit. That’s that. I don’t cry because that guy over there got hit. I cry because I’m gonna get hit next. All that phony heroism is a bunch of baloney when they’re shooting at you. But you have to be honest with a corpse, and that is the emotion that the movie shows rubbing off on four young men’.”
- 1. Samuel Fuller, A Third Face: My Tale of Writing, Fighting, and Filmmaking (New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2004)
- 2. Adrian Martin, “The Big Red One,” 2005.
- 3. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Sam Fuller Spits His Guts,” 8 September 2016.
- 4. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “The Most Intelligent American Movie of the Year,” Chicago Reader, 19 November 2004.
- 5. Roger Ebert, “The Big Red One,” 21 November 2004.