Film Studies: What 'The Big Red One' really means

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Samuel Fuller was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1912. Before being called up for military service in 1942, he had written for newspapers as a crime reporter, he had done a few novels and he was just getting into movies. But from 1942-5, he was with the First US Infantry Division (known as the Big Red One). He fought in North Africa, Sicily, Normandy and across Europe into Czechoslovakia. He was there the first day at Omaha Beach, and at Falkenau concentration camp on the day of its liberation.

Back from the war, Fuller launched a career as a movie director. He made B-Westerns, low-budget war pictures, yet his brilliance was so stimulated by limits that he fought through to big pictures. As such, he is one of the giants of post-war American film, tirelessly addicted to men in violent places, yet so possessed of an intricate, dynamic camera style that his best films stand as models of seething ideas held within the frame of action and emotion. The best-known of these little masterpieces are Pickup on South Street, House of Bamboo, Run of the Arrow, China Gate, Forty Guns, Underworld USA, Shock Corridor and The Naked Kiss.

But then, in 1979, Fuller got his dream. He had always wanted to make a film to be called The Big Red One, based on the war he had seen. Lorimar empowered him to make the dream (though they slashed their budget from $12m to $4m) and with Lee Marvin as his archetypal sergeant, and a bunch of young actors, he took off for locations in Israel. When Fuller had his film done, he made a cut - his cut - that ran four-and-a-half hours. Lorimar decided that that was crazy and they assigned the film to another editor (with Fuller out of the loop). That reduced it to 113 minutes, and that's how it opened in 1980.

Fuller died in 1997. It was not that he was unhappy with the 113-minute cut: indeed, in Britain, in the Monthly Film Bulletin, Richard Combs called it "the one great film of the Eighties". In the typical language of his own book, A Third Face, the director recorded his own thoughts: "Hell, I know you've got to accept compromise if you want to make motion pictures. I'd swallowed my share, believe me. Nevertheless, my longtime dream had finally come true. That The Big Red One now existed, even in an abridged version, was miraculous and, without any doubt, my most important achievement. Future audiences and film historians will judge it for themselves. All I ask is that they be given the opportunity to see the movie I lived, wrote, directed, and edited with my heart and soul - the entire four-and-a-half-hour movie - before they render their final judgement."

Not all of this has come to pass yet, but thanks to the critic and historian Richard Schickel we are closer to the dream. Digging into the Warner Bros vaults in Kansas City, Schickel came upon about 70,000 feet of Big Red One footage, and working from Fuller's own shooting script he has been able to reconstruct a version of the film that now runs 163 minutes. On a limited theatrical release in the US the film earned rave reviews and now it comes to Britain in a DVD release. But try to catch the theatrical version at the National Film Theatre because this is an epic picture, full of battles and grand gestures. The small screen carries the message, but not always with the passion that Fuller intended.

I suppose it is true that war films do not play very well these days. Our taste for violence and armaments is so fanciful and day-dreamish, and the young male audience is too close to being called up itself to be happy with the sport. Moreover, our carefully controlled television coverage of modern war likes to marvel at the super sophistication of the weapons - it's a way of encouraging the audience to think that fighting a war is as tidy and exciting as playing an interactive combat game.

In turn, that is a measure of how far our culture has lost experience of combat. There have been some stunning evocations of war's damage lately from thoughtful and humane artists - Spielberg in Saving Private Ryan, Minghella in Cold Mountain, and the overall mood of Götterdämerung in Downfall. But all those directors were born after 1945. They could say that their lives have been strewn with small wars, and television coverage, but still one of the great historical virtues of The Big Red One is simply the notion of a long, destructive, just war in which everything might have to be sacrificed except resolve.

In the first half of the 20th century, the state of war (or the sense of being close to it) was central to culture - and in real history where millions were dying we had to determine the nature of a "good" war. Thus, whereas the First World War is generally regarded as insane now, or as the wilful folly of addled ruling classes, World War Two was a people's war, on all sides, and not just a terrible ordeal but an acceleration in all our political processes. In turn, the years of Cold War and of small local wars have been a time of widespread pacifism and shrinking from violence. It's still not clear, I think, whether that path is constructive or delusional. In other words, will it ever be politically correct not to fight for what you think is right? Has old-fashioned warfare already passed its energy on to the economic contest, subtler but maybe just as cruel?

Such arguments may be the greatest value of having Fuller's Big Red One in its best form yet more than 50 years after the events that activated it. It's clear that Fuller remembered the war as if it were yesterday, and I think that he shares that feeling with his cast (Marvin is superb, but heroic and intransigent in ways that are so out of fashion it's nearly comic sometimes) and he delivers combat with a terrific, lethal lucidity that is appropriate to the weaponry of his times and to the place of valour and correct decision-making. Again, that is strikingly out of key with today's thinking which laments the chaos of war, the blind chance and the futility of courage.

I think this is a very fine movie - though it is harder to take as something "new", and so brash that it helps to know about the mixture of barbarian and genius that was Fuller himself. But as any visit to the Imperial War Museum will teach you, you cannot understand war except in terms of how it felt then. The real madness of 1914-18 was the trenches - people should not live in trenches and that alone was a reason to end the war. But the Museum can put you there. Then you'd need to read the newspapers, the poetry and the songs of 1914-18. In much the same way, what The Big Red One needs for its greatness to show is to be surrounded by a season of Second World War movies, from the sublimely silly to the tragically hopeful.

'The Big Red One: The Reconstruction': NFT, London SE1 (020 7928 323229), 29 April to 5 May; and out on DVD (Warner Home Video £19.99) from 2 May