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The Big Red One - The Reconstruction (Two-Disc Special Edition)

 

Rating: NR

Distributor: Warner Home Video

Release Date: May 3, 2005
Review posted: May 3, 2005

 

Reviewed by Dylan Grant

 

SYNOPSIS

 

“The real glory of war,” Samuel Fuller said, “is surviving.”  A decorated combatant with the famed U.S. First Infantry in World War II, Fuller survived.  His 1980 film version of his war experiences did not... until now.  Working with 70, 000 feet of vault materials and Fuller’s shooting script, critic/filmmaker Richard Schickel heads a reconstruction that adds over 40 minutes and transforms a truncated but admired war film into an epic masterpiece.

 

CRITIQUE

 

In the late 1970’s, after an eight year absence from feature filmmaking, Samuel Fuller finally got the financing for the story he had been waiting more than thirty years to tell, the story of his life during war time.  World War II was the defining moment in Fuller’s life, and he learned things during those years that would later become his consistent artistic themes.  In his early 30’s when the war broke out, Fuller was older than the average soldier, and the infantry was his second career, after years as a reported in New York City and around the country.  He made it though the war with his humor in tact, and went on to a successful career in filmmaking, mostly B-movies, but they all had balls.  After it all, The Big Red One was to be Fuller’s crowning achievement.  Unfortunately, without Fuller’s participation or cooperation, the film was cut by more than thirty percent, reducing an epic to little more than a quirky, low budget war film.  Also lost was a screen legend’s greatest performance.

 

Almost an hour has been added to the film, 47 minutes to be exact, much of it the real meat of the film.  The new footage fleshes out characters that were only blips before, if they were seen at all, but more importantly it reintroduces elements that were staples of Fuller’s vision, moments of absurdity and scenes that showed just how cheap life had become under the circumstances.  During the invasion of Normandy - the squad’s third amphibious landing, it is not treated as anything special - Private Zab (Robert Carradine) makes his way down the beach to relay a message to the commanding officer.  Along the way his cigar burns out and he loses his helmet.  Then he comes across a dead man with his entrails hanging out.  Zab drops his cigar butt into the dead man’s chest cavity, takes his cigar and helmet, moves on down the beach.  It is an interesting moment, showing not only Fuller’s typical lack of sentiment, but the character’s as well.  There are also plenty of absurd moments, like when the Arab fighters cut off the ears of dead Germans to trade the Americans for cigarettes, or the men on horseback taking on a German tank.  This is all in addition to what had been in the film all along.  When the squad stops to deliver a baby in a tank, they use straps of bullets to hold the woman’s legs open... with the bullets pointed towards her.  There are also new moments of ambiguity.  When they stop to rest, a German woman fingers the rifle of one of the men.  The Sergeant (Lee Marvin) tells to Private to keep his eye on her.  “She’s just a German, Sergeant,” the Private says, “she’s not a Nazi.”

 

The question of killing was in the truncated version of the film, but it is given greater depth here, a question that comes up over and over throughout the film, the final pay off not coming until the end.  The pay off scene - where Griff (Mark Hamill) kills a German soldier at Falkenau - was always there, but with the added material leading up to it, a familiar scene now has so many more layers of depth.  The ambiguity is shown in the very first scene of the film.  France, 1918, The Sergeant comes across a German soldier and kills him.  It is routine, and he does not think twice about it.  That is, until he learns that the Armistice had been signed and that the war had been over for hours.  The killing went from being a routine act of war to a grievous crime, a sin for The Sergeant, a professional soldier, and it haunts him throughout the rest of the film.  In a new scene, he talks a little about killing, perhaps the most he has to say at any one time in the film.  He says that they are free to fire away only until the Germans surrender.  “Kill all the Huns you can before that,” he says, “but never after.”  As The Sergeant, Lee Marvin gives his finest screen performance.  We know as much about The Sergeant as the squad does, which is almost nothing, but he leads with a quiet intensity, leading them competently and keeping them safe.  When he returns from the hospital after being wounded, his boys drop what they are doing and run over to him as though he was the father they had not seen in years.

 

Many of the new scenes also deal with a German soldier, Schroeder (played by Siegfried Rauch), who becomes a German version of The Sergeant.  Much of what one man says is echoed by the other.  Schroeder wounds The Sergeant in North Africa, only to be wounded by The Sergeant in Sicily.  The two cross paths from the opening of the war to the surrender.  Echoing what The Sergeant says about “a pen, a stopwatch, and a piece of paper,” when Schroeder comes across a leaflet that says the Germans have surrendered and the war is over, he stops, drops his helmet and weapon, and starts the long walk home.  The fanaticism he displayed for the war ended with the surrender; his job is done.

 

The added material adds so much, but what is best is the new sense we get of the passage of years.  We see the squad go from nervous young Privates who have never fired a shot, to hardened veterans.  Through it all there is a sense that even though the men fight along side each other, they are going through the war alone.  There is a great moment near the end of the film, when they battle their way through Czechoslovakia and discover the Falkenau concentration camp.  Fuller shows the four of them individually, in rapid succession, kicking open the doors, and what they find stops them cold.  Nothing of what they have seen before has prepared them for what they find.  The four of them find this horror together, but each man finds it for himself.  It is the moment where whatever shred of innocence was left if eradicated, and the reality of what they have been fighting for sets in.  The scene is the pay off, at long last, not only to the question of killing, but for the entire movie.

 

Unlike other famously truncated films like The Magnificent Ambersons, where it was all but certain that the lost footage was truly lost, with The Big Red One it was always fairly certain that the lost footage was around somewhere.  Thankfully it has finally been restored, and one of the cinemas great questions has been answered.

 

THE VIDEO

 

The Big Red One is presented in the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio.  Some of the new material is a bit dark, like there was only so much that could be done with the color levels, but that is a minor complaint.  It is actually quite surprising how new some of the scenes look after they have been sitting around for 25 years.  The overall picture is sharp, and with the exception of a couple new scenes, the colors look better than they ever have.

 

THE AUDIO

 

This DVD offers English and French tracks, both on Dolby 5.1.  Every bit of the soundtrack was overhauled for this reconstruction, from dialogue to gunshots and explosions, and it really pays off.  The layering is unbelievable, up to date enough not to sound old, while retaining the films intended grittiness.  In some of the scenes, the sound had to be created from scratch, but it is done so well that one would never know.  The balance between the war sounds and the quiet moments is incredible, and the dispersal keeps all channels equal.

 

THE EXTRAS

 

Commentary by Filmmaker/Critic Richard Schickel: The man behind the reconstruction talks about Fuller and the new material.  He talks about what was added and how the material was restored.

 

The Real Glory: Reconstructing The Big Red One: The cast talks about making the film, from their first meetings with Fuller to the film’s disappointing 1980 release.  We also hear from Fuller himself via clips from a 1990 interview he did with Schickel.  Schickel then takes us through the long, arduous process of restoring the film.  (48:00)

 

The Men Who Made the Movies: Samuel Fuller: A Turner Classic Movies documentary, featuring footage from the same 1990 interview.  Fuller talks about his more well known films and what kinds of stories and characters excite him.  (55:00)

 

Anatomy of a Scene: A look at six scenes, all with commentary, that show what the film looked like before and after reconstruction.

 

Alternate Scenes: 18 scenes in all, with commentary.  These scenes were discovered during the reconstruction but were left out because there was not enough material to integrate them into the film.

 

The Fighting First: A vintage U.S. War Department film about the famed division, highlighting the biggest campaigns of World War II.  (13:00)

 

Original Promo Reel: A reel discovered in 1999, that was originally intended as a selling tool for the film.  This reel contains scenes missing from the original 1980 theatrical cut and inspired the reconstruction.  (30:00)

 

Stills Gallery: Photographs from behind-the-scenes.

 

Trailers: Three in all, two of these are from the time of the film’s original release, and there is one from the release of the Reconstruction.

 

Radio Spots: Two vintage radio promos for the film’s 1980 release.

 

FINAL THOUGHTS

 

At long last, The Big Red One is available in a more complete form than we have ever seen.  The additions to the film elevate it from curious low budget war flick to the epic autobiographical masterpiece of one of the cinema’s most powerful filmmakers.  We see the great performances that were lost, the levels of visual storytelling, and just how much Fuller was able to squeeze out of his $4 million dollar budget.  The result is astonishing.  The bonus material only adds to the reconstruction.  The material is gives much interesting detail on the making of the film, on the real Fighting First, and on Fuller himself.

 

VERDICT: DVD COLLECTOR SERIES

 

Home | Back to Top

 

:: The DVD

 

:: DVD Ratings

 

THE MOVIE

10

THE VIDEO

8

THE AUDIO

10

THE EXTRAS

10

OVERALL

10

 

:: Merchandise