Monday, January 16, 2006


I usually restrict my blog reviews to movies from the 30's to the 60's, but I'm making an exception here because this film was directed by Samuel Fuller, a cult B-movie director whose heyday was in the 50's and 60's. I haven't seen many of his films, but the ones I have seen (PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET, THE NAKED KISS) are excellent. This one from fairly late in his career was released by a major studio but made on a relatively small budget and it shows. The directorial style is a little awkward at times, and the screenplay could have used some more work, but it's an interesting war movie which gains in power as it goes along, and looks rather ahead of its time now. The episodic narrative, based on Fuller's own experiences, follows a group of five soldiers from the First Infantry Divison (the Big Red 1 of the title) through the entire course of WWII. The sergeant is Lee Marvin; we first see him in WWI in a memorable prologue involving a rampaging shell-shocked horse and the killing of a German soldier who is desperately trying to tell his killer that the Armistice has been signed. Marvin and his four young riflemen are the focus of the film, which begins in North Africa in 1942, then jumps ahead through Sicily, Normandy (D-Day), Belgium, and Germany (the German surrender in 1945).

The various episodes range in tone from humorous to gory to surreal, and sometimes all three in one. Natives cut the ears off of dead German soldiers and use them to barter with the GIs for cigarettes. Marvin, in a makeshift hospital, gets a wet kiss on the mouth from an admiring German soldier. The soldiers help a woman give birth in a tank. A young man gets a testicle blown off by a land mine and Marvin causally tosses it over his shoulder, assuring the kid that he only needs one. The most surreal scene involves a raid on an insane asylum; a Resistance member (Stephane Audran) has been planted there, and as she dances about as though she's in another world, she cuts the throats of several German soldiers. When gunfire breaks out later in the dining room, the inmates continue eating as though nothing is happening until one inmate grabs a machine gun and starts firing at random. That night, Mark Hamill (the passive blond solider who is uncomfortable with the idea of killing) has wild sex with Audran right in the middle of a room of sleeping inmates. The other soldiers, all of whom (in direct opposition to war movie conventions) survive the war, are Robert Carradine (a writer and stand-in for Fuller), Bobby DiCicco, and Kelly Ward. A running sick joke is that the soldiers quit bothering to learn the names of new infantry members because they'll just wind up dead, and indeed, like the guest stars on Star Trek, all the newbies do wind up dead, though one guy (Perry Lang as a big blond doofus) actually survives for a couple of episodes, and when he does get killed, he manages to bring his killer down as well. The individual episodes are good, but much of the dialogue is corny or falls flat, especially Lee Marvin's many "punch lines": in a particularly intense segment set in a liberated concentration camp, Hamill fires repeatedly at a German soldier who is hiding in a crematory oven, but the mood is shattered when Marvin comes up from behind and says, "I think you got him." Carradine, who narrates the film, never seems comfortable with a cigar hanging out of his mouth, but generally the actors are fine, though they never look or feel very battle-hardened, at least as such things are generally conveyed in Hollywood movies. The budget constraints didn't allow for many "epic" battle scenes, but I imagine that Fuller's message, "Surviving is the only glory in war," is better served by that. For all its small disappointments, this film (the reconstructed 2-1/2 hour cut currently on DVD) is well worth watching. [DVD]

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