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Big Red One: The Reconstruction, The

Big Red One: The Reconstruction, The(2005)

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Film critic Richard Schickel and a battery of visual and audio restoration experts have returned to Sam Fuller's The Big Red One in an attempt to reconstruct the much longer film the late director had shot before Lorimar took it away from him in 1980. Rumors once flew about of a four-hour version, much like the even longer rough cuts said to exist of Terrence Malick's The Thin Red Line.

With the blessing of Warner Bros., Schickel and his editors located and examined approximately an hour of new scenes and additions to existing scenes. What emerges from their work is a much more coherent and satisfying film, at about two hours and forty minutes.

The butchered original-release The Big Red One is a rather cut-price epic done on a miniscule scale. Three major invasions by the Army's First Infantry are seen mostly in close-ups. A tough Sergeant (Lee Marvin) shepherds four main foot soldiers and a larger number of expendable replacements through the first landing at Ouran to the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp in Czechoslovakia almost three years later. Cigar-chomping writer Zab (Robert Carradine) is the obvious Fuller surrogate, but all of the main characters represent parts of the director's personality; the film is an autobiographical account of Fuller through his European campaigns 1942-'45.

The original release seemed bitty and random, with incomplete character arcs and undeveloped themes. In the reconstructed cut more of Fuller's ideas make sense. His many vignettes of wartime ironies become a tapestry of folly instead of a string of unrelated incidents.

Yet the film still suffers from the same ills of much of the esteemed director's work after 1960 or so. The over-reliance on close-ups makes his world seem too claustrophobic. Much of the acting beyond the lead characters is indifferent and amateurish, especially the frequent child players. His soldiers' attitudes are well observed - Fuller is probably the only combat infantryman ever to become a Hollywood film director - but even the leads are given anachronistic haircuts.

Finally, although many of Fuller's themes are sincere and honest, too many of them play as limp clichés or are flagged by overbearing symbolism. His use of a giant cross in a battle scene is weak, especially when dragged out over two wars - it seems to reference the ending/beginning of Run of the Arrow. It's more than credible that troops could find themselves delivering a civilian baby in combat, but in the film the scene is trite and obvious. Likewise, having a battle in an insane asylum is much better as an idea than as a finished scene on film, even with that wonderful machine gun- toting loony at the end. Lee Marvin's character has a soft spot for kids that Fuller overplays shamelessly. A single thirty-second scene in Merrill's Marauders with Claude Akins crying over a Burmese child's smile has 50 times the power. The reconstruction is an excellent way to see more of what Sam Fuller intended, and it is an improvement, but it does not make The Big Red One into a classic film.

The reconstruction raises other questions, especially when we find out (through the disc's generous extras) that it wasn't a simple matter of restoring cut scenes already existing in outtake negative and track sections. The restoration team cut most of the new material from scratch and editorially altered large sections of the film, in many instances using the script alone to determine where 'new' material found in outtake negative would be inserted. An entire sequence or two found existing in an existing promo reel provided a cutting template, but no work print of Fuller's long cut existed. So what we are watching is an interpretation, by experts, of what Fuller may have intended.

A full Richard Schickel commentary helps to sort out the new footage from the old. The second disc features a new documentary in which the restoration personnel explain their work, and a selection of excerpted material that was found and not re-integrated into the new cut. All of those choices are explained, but they make this version no more than an educated approximation of what Fuller might have done: Some of the rejected pieces here remind us of quirky scenes in his older films!

Warners' DVD of The Big Red One looks marvelous, showing little trace of the matching problems mentioned by Schickel's editors. It looks much better than it once did on cable Television and VHS tape because those un-matted presentations left the battle scenes with big empty spaces at the top and bottom of the frame and made the production look that much more threadbare. Aided by new compositions from the original composer Dana Kaproff, the revised audio work is equally seamless.

Other extras include an excellent video documentary on Fuller from the Men Who Made the Movies series, the original promo reel, trailer and TV spots, still galleries and the above mentioned restoration comparisons.

For more information about The Big Red One, visit Warner Video. To order The Big Red One, go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson
Director, writer, pulp fiction author, raconteur and all-around maverick character Samuel Fuller was as proud of his military service as any of his artistic accomplishments. Like hundreds of thousands of other Americans, he enlisted in the armed services after Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese. He joined the infantry and, as a rifleman in the First United States Infantry Division (aka "the Big Red One"), he participated in the Allied assault on North Africa in 1942, fought his way through Sicily, landed in the first wave on Omaha Beach during the D-Day invasion of Normandy, took part in the liberation of France and Belgium, and marched into Germany, where his squad helped liberate the Falkenau Concentration Camp. "I began a journal in North Africa," he shared in his autobiography, A Third Face. "If I survived, I was going to write about my war experiences." His experiences informed The Steel Helmet and numerous other war films but it was forty years before he put his own story down, first in the novel The Big Red One, published in 1980, and then in the film that came out the same year, in a compromised form that was partially restored in 2004.

The Big Red One is Fuller's most autobiographical film, at once an old-fashioned war thriller and a portrait of the insanity and senseless destruction of combat, and the most expensive and ambitious production of his career. It charts the journey of his own real life unit (1st Infantry, 1st Platoon) through the experiences of four riflemen. Robert Carradine, Mark Hamill, Bobby Di Cicco, and Kelly Ward play the "four horsemen," as their tough, taciturn Sergeant (Lee Marvin) names them, the eternal figures in a rifle squad filled out by a couple of hundred replacements whose names they finally give up trying to learn over the four years of combat. The rest are simply "dead men with temporary use of their arms and legs," explains one of the riflemen, and in Fuller's clear-eyed portrait of combat, the only glory in war is survival.

We never learn the platoon leader's his name--he's just The Sergeant or Sarge--but this retread (the film opens on him during the final day of World War I) guides them from green volunteers to hardened survivors. A World War II vet himself, Marvin's face is a road map of the war, the worn, battered, yet unusually calm and warm face of a survivor. His heart is hidden under a helmet and three-day stubble, but the weary serenity behind his eyes turn warm and protective when the children of liberated villages follow Sarge around like puppies and he wordlessly adopts them for a few heartbreaking moments.

Carradine's cigar-chomping, pulp-fiction-writing Zab stands-in for Fuller--his journal entries provide the narration and commentary and at one point in the film he finds out that his novel, "The Dark Deadline" (a twist on Fuller's "The Dark Page") has been published and sent to the front in a military edition--but there's a little of Fuller in all of the young men. Hamill's Griff is a marksman who doesn't think he can murder another human ("We don't murder, we kill," explains Sarge); Di Cicco's Vinci the smart aleck Brooklyn kid; and Ward's Johnson the artist who sketches his impressions along the way.

Fuller gives us North Africa, Italy, even D-Day on Omaha Beach, all recreated on a fraction of the budget and a sliver of the cast that Steven Spielberg had at his disposal for Saving Private Ryan. He shoots with a spare, suggestive visual style, largely in close-up, in part to keep the focus on the immediate experience, but also to make the most of his limited resources. Isolated, deserted locales dominate their odyssey. Death is abrupt and brutal, ready to strike at any moment. It verges on the unreal, and these boys learn to respond instinctively to the unreality of it all. For such a sprawling portrait, it is all about the details: condoms used for everything except sex, a wooden crucifix with the crucified dead-eyed Jesus in the desert presiding over scenes of death and destruction, the indescribable, cold fury that hits Griff when he discovers the horrors that the Nazis perpetrated at the concentration camp they liberate.

Fuller's original rough cut reportedly ran over four hours. That cut is lost to time and commerce (its ownership bounced around as studios sold off libraries) but in 2004, film critic, historian, and documentary filmmaker Richard Schickel oversaw a reconstruction using a trove of unearthed footage and Fuller's original script as a guide. It doesn't come close to the lost cut but The Big Red One: The Reconstruction fills out the film with over 45 minutes of new and expanded scenes that restore characters lost in the cutting, fill out experiences, and give the film a shape missing in the original cut. Schickel also gives the film the perfect opening Fuller quote: "This is a fictional life based on factual death." The most defining addition (apart from the sense of heft that the accumulation of details gives the experience) is a structural element: a Nazi Sergeant (Siegfried Rauch) whose journey mirrors the Sarge's. In the theatrical cut he appear at the end of the film in a collision with Sarge that bookends the opening scene. In the expanded version he's a ruthless Nazi (he kills his own soldier in one scene) and a brutal officer who winds through the film in parallel to Sarge, a warped mirror double. It gives the climactic echo of the opening scene a much more complicated resonance that reflects Fuller's distinctive approach to the war film. At the end this Nazi is, like Sarge, just a soldier and soldiers don't judge. They kill and when the war is over they stop killing.

The Blu-ray debut of The Big Red One only upgrades the theatrical cut to high definition. It looks superb, with noticeable improvement in clarity, detail, and color. The expanded 2004 Reconstruction is included in standard definition only, making it more like a supplement than what it should be: the featured attraction. Given that, it looks very good, just not 1080p good.

The Blu-ray imports all of the supplements from the two-disc DVD special edition. Film historian and reconstruction producer Richard Schickel provides commentary on the reconstructed version, discussing the changes in terms of story and theme. The Real Glory: The Reconstruction of the Big Red One is a 48-minute documentary from 2005 that opens with the young stars (now 24 years older) doing their impressions of Fuller growling and barking orders with a gruff energy ("That was what it was like to be directed by Sam Fuller in The Big Red One") and concludes with a journey through the legend of Fuller's long lost original cut, the inspiration for the reconstruction, the process of searching for and restoring missing scenes, and the technical tools used in the reconstruction.

There are over 30 minutes of further deleted scenes, including an eight-minute "French Vichy" scene that was an entire subplot originally shot for the opening sequence but unused in the reconstruction (for editorial as much as technical reasons). Two scenes are shown in their rough form (Sam Fuller's voice is heard in one) and there are comparisons of the Amphitheatre Cavalry Battle and the "Tank Baby" scenes from before and after the reconstruction. All are presented with commentary by reconstruction editor Bryan McKenzie and post-production supervisor Brian Hamblin (which is, frustratingly, not an optional track--you can't view the scenes without their commentary). They explain why some scenes were not incorporated and point out the differences in extended reconstruction scenes.

It also features the complete Fuller-produced 30 minute promo reel which tantalized film historians with footage cut out of the original release and inspired the reconstruction project when it was discovered in 1999, Richard Schickel's 1973 documentary The Men Who Made the Movies: Samuel Fuller, the archival War Department documentary The Fighting First, a still gallery, original TV and radio spots and trailer and the 2004 reconstruction trailer.

The disc is available as a stand-alone single-disc Blu-ray release and as part of the four-disc set World War II Collections: Invasion Europe, along with the feature films The Dirty Dozen, which also stars Lee Marvin, and Where Eagles Dare with Richard Burton and young Clint Eastwood, both on Blu-ray, and the documentary George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin, which is included as a "bonus DVD."

By Sean Axmaker