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Survival of the fittest
Samuel Fullerís The Big Red One is restored

When Samuel Fuller was at last able to realize a long-held ambition and make a film about his World War II experiences as a soldier in the 1st Infantry Division (nicknamed the Big Red One after its shoulder patch), his admirers expected that it would be his masterpiece. War had been the crucial metaphor and the organizing principle throughout his work, which already included several great war films.

It was a disappointment to find in The Big Red One, on its initial release in 1980, only an engaging and entertaining film: undeniably personal but loose, rambling, and far less than the tragic confrontation with nightmare and madness it needed to be in order to fulfill its predetermined role in Fullerís úuvre. It was easy to see that studio cutting had hurt the film, harder to visualize the masterpiece behind what was left. The Big Red One became an awkward embarrassment for Fullerís partisans ó a good film that should have been great ó and a source of regret to Fuller, who until his death in 1997 cherished hopes of restoring his butchered film to his original vision.

Richard Schickelís reconstruction of The Big Red One redresses the situation. Now truly the great film that was expected in 1980, it can be called without hyperbole a new film. Although longer by 50 minutes than the 1980 version, it feels more economical; itís also more lucid, more gripping, and bolder in its dazzling shifts between horror and humor.

Whatís different? First, numerous missing scenes have been restored. One of them ó a battle in a Roman amphitheater in North Africa ó is equal to Fullerís best work: chaotic, exciting, and ruthless in its clarity. Second, the structure of the film has become intelligible. And itís in the structure that Fuller triumphs. Asked whether he didnít agree that a story should have a beginning, a middle, and an end, Jean-Luc Godard famously replied, "Yes, but not necessarily in that order." Fuller goes beyond Godard in making a film thatís all middle. In The Big Red One, episodes have neither formal beginning nor clear ending: again and again, Fullerís heroes find themselves in a crisis, muddle through it, and, as they seem to approach its end, have already become involved in something else. Fuller conveys through this bewildering rush something vital about his experience of war.

The film has, to be sure, a beginning and an end, but they belong not to the young dogfaces whom we follow from Algeria to Czechoslovakia but to their old sergeant (Lee Marvin in a splendid performance). The sergeant is a quintessential Fuller figure, who fights because fighting is absurd, and who bears a terrible burden the younger men are free of: what it means to murder rather than to kill (a distinction he insists on, despite the derision of one of his young charges). Late in the film, marking him as a crossroads figure between life and death, Fuller stages a magnificent sequence in which the sergeant struggles to bring back, as if from the dead, a boy he has carried out of the Falkenau concentration camp.

In 1980, the callowness of the actors playing members of the sergeantís platoon seemed a compromise. Now it makes sense. By casting nonentities as the young soldiers (the relative celebrity of Mark Hamill, three years after the success of Star Wars, only makes his lack of stature more noticeable), Fuller drives us to identify with the sergeant, with war itself as an impersonal force, and with the position from which it can be seen (as the filmís voiceover narration states) that "the only glory is for the survivors."

This is the main truth of the film. In The Big Red One, the dead are barely known and not mourned. For all the amazing, intense intimacy of the film (everything is always too close; in a love scene, Fuller crosscuts between big close-ups of eyes), Fuller creates a perspective and an overriding movement before which no single person, alive or dead, appears to matter much. (If the vast differences between The Big Red One and Steven Spielbergís Saving Private Ryan, between which comparisons are inevitable if only because of their Omaha Beach scenes, can be reduced to a single issue, itís this.) In the denial of individuality lies the insanity of war ó an evil over which Fuller triumphs by facing it without flinching.

Issue Date: December 3 - 9, 2004
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