The Big Red One Reviews
The narrative structure in The Big Red One is rather episodic. Rather than moving towards a resolution for a singular plot point, The Big Red One unfolds in a directionless manner with a focus on characters. There is hardly a story in The Big Red One because director Samuel Fuller's perspective is clearly that war is not a tale of adventure but simply a hectic barrage of explosive violence. He has a valid point and he stakes this claim very clearly with The Big Red One, though it might polarize viewers. Some audiences will find its realism to be striking and original, though others will find frustration with the lack of consistent and direct focus. For me, I found it to be an element that made The Big Red One to be a distinctive war film and that its originality was very rich, though I will also admit that its episodic structure left it to be somewhat inconsistent Some of the vignettes tend to drag on for a while yet others are strongly engaging. These scenes oscillate between periods of dialogue and depictions of warfare which can create an inconsistent pace, and at 162 minutes there is a lot of it to sit through. The script itself is intelligent and the film has a lot of sub-textual commentary to make, it's just that the way in which it unfolds as a naturalistic experience for the day to day experiences of WWII leaves some days being less interesting than others. Still, it is far more admirable and creative than it is boring.
Despite its low budget, there is nothing that stands in the way of Samuel Fuller realizing the full extent of his stylish potential. The Big Red One feels incredibly genuine as a war film, and the fact that it accomplished so much on a budget of $4 million is a remarkable achievement. Shot on location in Israel and Ireland, the scenery provides the perfect platform for the story to unfold in The Big Red One with all its gritty dirt and dilapidated buildings. The production design and costumes help to set the convincing nature of the film, yet the most gripping part proves to be how these all converge in the action sequences. Depicting all kinds of battles including D-Day at Normandy, the action in The Big Red One combines all the brilliant production elements while intensifying the cinematography and editing. The sound effects are ramped up during these scenes and there is no censorship on the quantity of blood, though it is not to a grotesque extent. The battle scenes depicted in The Big Red One are intense and exhilarating action which capture the full extent of violence and unexpected horrors of the war brilliantly. The Big Red One is a spectacle on and off the battlefield. And when the battle is not occurring, the atmosphere remains strong thanks to the beautiful composition of Dana Kaproff's musical score. Capturing a patriotic feeling with subtlety as not to go overboard, The Big Red One maintains music which pushes the narrative forward with tension and sadness without dragging viewers down into sappy territory. The mood of the film develops on its own, and the music in The Big Red One simply works to capitalize on it all.
And though The Big Red One is not as well-recognized as it truly should be, it maintains a strong cast of prominent actors who all give their best to the feature.
Legendary Academy Award winner Lee Marvin leads the cast in The Big Red One. Iconic for his work in many war films including The Dirty Dozen (1967), Lee Marvin easily has the charisma of a leading soldier. Lee Marvin delivers the greatest performance from around the end of his career in The Big Red One because his uses his age to convey a feeling of being worn down by the first world war and also wise in his plight. He keeps his tense emotions rather subtle a lot of the time to capture the emotional distance of a surviving solider, though he also interacts with the fellow actors as a mean of establishing a true feeling of camaraderie. In essence, Lee Marvin is the perfect caricature of an aged soldier in The Big Red One and ties the cast together with his many years of experience as an actor all converging into a singular performance. Lee Marvin has lost none of his rough-edged skill or natural charm as an actor over the years, and The Big Red One is the final example of his maximum potential in his long and impressive career where his role is essentially him passing the last of his spirit onto the talent collection of young actors around him.
Mark Hamill is great in The Big Red One. Stripped of the shining demeanour that gave him glory in the Star Wars trilogy (1977-1983), Mark Hamill has his youthful charisma but is the furthest thing from Luke Skywalker. Thrown into the torments of war, Mark Hamill is buried beneath his uniform and the dirty terrain around him to characterize Pvt. Griff as a soldier of the same relevance as everyone else. The film plays this notion so that he doesn't stand out too much, but any scene that focuses on Pvt. Griff serves to prove just what potential Mark Hamill maintains, and the answer proves to be plenty. During his sporadic collection of scenes, Mark Hamill really goes all out and conveys vulnerability and brotherhood in his character while progressively developing more intensity as he loses his identity to the horrors of the war. You can always see the youth in him, but by the end of The Big Red One his innocence is lost behind the trigger of his gun. To play such a nameless character when his legacy rests so prominently on the Jedi who restored peace to the galaxy proves the underutilized potential of Mark Hamill's acting skills, so the fact that The Big Red One had its glory restored means that hopefully a wider audience can realize it one day.
Robert Carradine is also a notorious addition to the cast. Prior to his most iconic role as the quintessential nerd Lewis Skolnick in Revenge of the Nerds (1984), Robert Carradine portrays a frail yet charming young soldier in The Big Red One where he manages to use his natural frail persona to create a friendly appeal. As his character represents the experiences of director Samuel Fuller he is clearly an essential part of the film, and the way that he easily oscillates between accruing uncertainty outside of the battle and determination to strike down his enemies while in combat is refreshing. Robert Carradine's dramatic talents in The Big Red One add further legacy to the Carradine name if it wasn't already impressive enough.
So The Big Red One's episodic formula may drag on for a long time, but the pure originality in all this coupled with Samuel Fuller's intense and stylistic vision creates a raw and real depiction of war which with a cast of precise talent.
Even narratively, the film is stylized in a manner which pays tribute to old-fashioned war filmmaking sensibilities, while retaining the edge of the then-fresh movement of more brutally realist war filmmaking, and such a formula is unique in a number of ways, but is often taken advantage of so that storytelling can shamelessly lift glaring tropes, both classic and then-up-and-coming, until collapsing as surprisingly familiar. Of course, the film still manages to do only so much to get you familiar with the characters, for although, at least in the case of the leads, developmental shortcomings peak with a lapse in immediate development, there's something frequently lacking about the expository value of this layered ensemble piece, which paints somewhat thin layers to its leads, and hardly any depth at all to the supporting character roster. The film fails to flesh out its depths enough for the narrative to flow, thus, unevenness stands firm, due to, not simply the film's saying only so much about its plot at all, but to its taking an awfully long time to say only so much about its plot. I must admit that, as of the posting date of this review, I am only familiar with the "Reconstruction" cut of the film, which is surely much more excessive than the original final cut that runs exactly 39 minutes(-and-a-half, if anyone's interested) shorter, but I'm sure than any version of this film goes bloated with filler, some of which is fluffy in a way that drives tonal unevenness into this generally gritty drama, and much of which aimlessly drags out a plot which is episodic to begin with. The film isn't so much about a straightforward plot and conflict, as much as it focuses on various misadventures - both weighty and relatively inconsequential - about its leads during wartime, and the bloating really makes it hard to not feel just how disjointed this narrative is, thus, so much momentum is lost as things progress, further worn down by a certain chill to the atmosphere that ranges from bland to out-and-out dull. I was kind of expecting, or at least hoping that the film would border on outstanding, but in the end, it comes closer to bordering on underwhelming, as film which is both lazily formulaic and underdeveloped, and overambitiously bloated to the point of an aimless unevenness, made all the more distancing by a certain dullness. The final product could have gone so much further than it ultimately does, and yet, no matter how sloppy, the film rewards the patient, with plenty of entertainment and dramatic value, and even a fair deal of aesthetic value.
With Dana Kaproff's score being consistently formulaic and Adam Greenberg's cinematography being often a little flat, the film's aesthetic value isn't especially solid, but a realized balance between classic and then-contemporary tastes, particularly in Greenberg's often hauntingly well-lit efforts, attractively immerses you into a unique style of mixing old-fashioned and modernistically edgy war filmmaking sensibilities. Now, what really immerses you in the time and setting of this World War II drama is Peter Jamison's art direction, which is rather basic, but subtly solid enough in its structure and dynamicity to reinforce a sense of scope that ultimately goes a long way in selling the weight of this epic drama. The story concept needs all the realization to execution that it can get, for its episodicity and familiarity limit engagement value, even in a concept that isn't even particularly outstanding, yet is still pretty promising, with dramatic and thematic value as a portrait on the various scenarios of war as seen through the eyes of men who will be changed on the battlefield, both for the better and for the worse. The power of this story concept is underplayed, but it is there to be brought to life, as it is by Samuel Filler's script, at least a times, times in which the expository shortcomings and exhaustingly aimless structural bloating is transcended for the sake of colorful realization to memorable set piece drawings, in addition to near-extensively tasteful highlights in characterization. Well, nothing sells the characters quite like their portrayers, who have surprisingly little to work with, but deliver all the same, with lighting charisma and chemistry, broken up by a moving dramatic range which punctuates a slow, but sure projection of transformation in men who are changed by war, in all of its scale and all of its horror. The acting is decidedly the most consistent strength throughout this film which meets occasions of clumsiness with many a moment of solid inspiration, but cannot be truly saved without an adequate deal of inspiration to Fuller's efforts as director, which is limited, make no mistake, or at least feels as though it is, - what with all of the missteps in the handling of overambition, and in certain dull cold spells in storytelling - yet is nonetheless there, whether it be in the staging of tense action, or in the usage of a piercingly quiet intensity that really works when it works in delicately drawing you into the heart of this opus. Fuller ultimately drops the ball much more often than he should, but one would be hard pressed to deny that misguidance overcomes inspiration, of which there is enough in style, writing, acting and direction, for the final product to transcend its shortcomings as genuinely rewarding on the whole.
In the end, plenty of conventions are hit, while only so much expository depth is explored, even though the film bloats itself so much with filler which leads to an aimless sense of episodicity and unevenness, exacerbated by the coldness that could have dulled the final product down as underwhelming, were it not for the subtly attractive style, immersive art direction, generally colorful scripting, consistently endearing acting, and often effective direction which secure Samuel Fuller's "The Big Red One" as a generally rewarding saga on war.
3/5 - Good
Several users have agreed, and I join them: the film is misunderstood. The film can be fairly credited for being the first war movie to do a number of peculiar stunts: its strength relies on the characters and the script, instead of the battle sequences, even if the film is decently accomplished from a technical point of view; it introduced terms such as "replacement", "non-Coms" and "Krouts"; it treats war as a nonsensical struggle capable of causing madness in its participants; it is the second feature to treat D-Day as an important event in the development of the film; children shape the characters' motivations. By all means, it won't provide a typical moviewatching experience, pecifically talking about the genre it treats.
A good cinematography captures the magnitude of the events while keeping us distant if necessary to calture the magnitude of the violence inflicted. However, in its retellings, the movie drags in moments, and the direction is not strong enough to transmit the horrors that 5 constant years under war can provide. I am convinced we had a revolutionary masterpiece in hands with unexploited psychological potential, maybe because of getting stuck within Hollywood boundaries. Nevertheless, the quality assures a fully supported recommendation for those seeking ideas spoken in an unusual manner.
A recent reconstruction runs for 162 minutes and is credited for being the fullest version of the director's vision. I am looking forward to it, because maybe there lies a great portion of the potential I felt was unexplored... if not all of it!