The Big Red One (1980)

“Saving that Kraut was the final joke of the whole goddamned war. I mean we had more in common with him than all our replacements who got killed whose names we never even knew. We’d all made it through we were alive. I’m gonna dedicate my book to those who shot but didn’t get shot, because it’s about survivors. And surviving is the only glory in war, if you know what I mean.”

‘The Big Red One’, directed by Samuel Fuller in 1980, is an American war movie set during the Second World War. Lee Marvin plays a nameless soldier. In the opening scenes he is fighting as a Private in the First World War. He kills a German soldier, but then discovers he did so after the armistice had been signed and so had unwittingly committed murder. The film than fast forwards to the next war and we see the soldier, now a Sergeant, leading a squad of men first through North Africa, then Italy, then during D-Day and finally through Belgium and Germany. The film focuses on his relationship with his squad members (a core team of four that includes Mark Hamill and Robert Carradine), and occasionally on his opponents, particularly a committed and ruthless German officer. It’s an epic movie, not one I’d heard of. In many ways it is eclipsed by Coppola’s ‘Apocalypse Now’, and Fuller’s movie, whilst it is rich in self-reflexive analysis of the meaning of war, does not share the same giddy, hallucinogenic visual style. It is shot effectively but simply with repeated motifs and visual cues that tie the different locations and situations together. Despite being lesser know, you can also see traces of Tarantino here – there are a number of moments in Fuller’s film that the later director borrowed wholesale for ‘Inglorious Basterds’. It’s a involving, brilliantly performance and moving film. Each soldier gets a part of the narrative, and each is shown to be on a journey both physically and psychologically, no more so than Marvin’s experienced but haunted Sergeant.

Would I recommend it? It’s a long movie – more ‘Band of Brothers’ than ‘Saving Private Ryan’, but the film never feels boring or meandering. It’s a key movie to watch to understand the evolution of how we see the Second World War. Watch in a double bill with ‘Saving Private Ryan’ for contrast.


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