The Big Red One: Reconstruction (NC) <br/> Mean Creek (15)

Big, brash and bloody (and that was just the director)
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The Independent Culture

'This is fictional life based on factual death," trumpets the opening title of Samuel Fuller's 1980 war film The Big Red One. It's a suitably bold tabloid statement of intent from former crime reporter and pulp writer Fuller, one of Hollywood's most authentically hard-bitten directors. The archetypally cigar-chomping Fuller (1912-1997) tended to make his nervy, pugnacious dramas - among them, Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss and Pickup on South Street - on a shoestring. The Big Red One was a rare big-budget outing, or at least it was until the $12m budget shrank to $4m. Hence the strangely sparse, telegraphic nature of this epic, which only enhances its brutal, haunting power.

'This is fictional life based on factual death," trumpets the opening title of Samuel Fuller's 1980 war film The Big Red One. It's a suitably bold tabloid statement of intent from former crime reporter and pulp writer Fuller, one of Hollywood's most authentically hard-bitten directors. The archetypally cigar-chomping Fuller (1912-1997) tended to make his nervy, pugnacious dramas - among them, Shock Corridor, The Naked Kiss and Pickup on South Street - on a shoestring. The Big Red One was a rare big-budget outing, or at least it was until the $12m budget shrank to $4m. Hence the strangely sparse, telegraphic nature of this epic, which only enhances its brutal, haunting power.

The Big Red One was originally released in a version recut by its backers Lorimar, losing over an hour and saddled with a voice-over that Fuller hated, and which partially remains in this new 158-minute version, reassembled under the aegis of film historian Richard Schickel.

Based on Fuller's own Second World War experience, The Big Red One follows a group of soldiers from the US First Infantry Division (the red "One" is their proud badge) as they fight their way from North Africa, across Europe, to Czechoslovakia, where they take part in liberating a concentration camp. The film isn't really a narrative, more a series of long, intensely realised episodes, and the men are less characters than universal dogfaces, embodiments of the army spirit. The commanding officer is Lee Marvin's stony-faced Sergeant, a man who has already looked death in the face and dealt it out. In a prologue, we see him killing a German, just hours after the First World War has officially ended: his experience represents the riddle that what is called killing during war is murder in peacetime.

The Sergeant is accompanied by four young riflemen who have survived impossible odds under his command, while their replacements have died one after another. The one who most clearly represents the young Fuller (and who became the film's narrator) is Zab (Robert Carradine), a brash, aspiring novelist; another is Griff, played by Mark Hamill of Star Wars fame, showing some real steeliness in one of the only adult roles he ever had a chance to play.

An extraordinary existential dimension results from the scaled-down nature of the production, with the entire US Army at times seeming to consist of five men. This sometimes gives the film a Sgt Fury comic-book quality, but it also reinforces the sense of war as a bitterly lonely experience. The soldiers often seem to be isolated, miles from the rest of the action, and indeed of history; in the First World War prologue, Marvin and his commanding officer are apparently the only two men left in the trenches, even if it is four hours after armistice.

The Big Red One may be a tribute to the toughness of the US Army - the Americans are clearly Europe's good guys, while the Germans (again, sometimes represented by the same recurring lone officer) are often farcical, right out of Hogan's Heroes. Yet this is not a war film that John Wayne would have approved of; indeed, one Pentagon officer complained, "It has no recruitment flavour." Fuller - himself glimpsed briefly as an army cameraman - depicts his men as humane, vulnerable, mundanely courageous and deeply cynical, scarred by their experience.

The often ugly realism of the battle scenes - the D-Day sequences boldly pre-empting Saving Private Ryan - sometimes erupts into stark, intense expressionism: a hollow-eyed wooden Jesus, a startling point-of-view shot of old Sicilian women with scythes hacking at the bodies of dead Germans, or the grotesque digression of a raid on a mental asylum. There's also much boisterous farce, rowdy machismo and some strictly B-movie hard-boiled moments. (A fiendish German doctor, unexpectedly snogging Marvin: "You are a beautiful man, Sergeant." Marvin retorts, "I can understand your feelings Fritz, but you got bad breath.")

Things become awkward only at the end, where a handful of heavily made-up extras represent the survivors of a concentration camp. The film isn't remotely equal to representing this moment - at least not by the current standards of the scrupulously over-literal Schindler's List - but then, what movie could? Fuller, after all, saw such a camp with his own eyes, and if he ends up straining between sentiment and hard- bitten taciturnity, that still registers as an authentically felt reaction. Marvin, monolithic, his leathered face shifting with a range of tightly mastered emotions, carries the film wonderfully; you can't imagine any other actor who convincingly could have done.

The film's voice-over ends, "Surviving is the only glory in war, if you know what I mean." Hard to say if Fuller himself wrote those words, although "if you know what I mean" has his ring.

Surviving also seems to be the only glory in American adolescence, if cinema is anything to go by: rather sign up for the infantry than face the tribulations depicted in the average high-school movie. Mean Creek is another entry in the US indie "youth-is-hell" canon. Young Sam (the likeable Rory Culkin) is bullied at school by fat boy George, so Sam's older brother and his cronies decide to teach George a lesson during a trip on the local river. The film's first half builds up a genuinely uneasy tension - we're almost in the territory of teenage Neil LaBute, as George grandstands for his peers, oscillating between being a big amiable blowhard and a quite spectacular obnoxiousness. After a rather predictable turning point, the second half contains much sorrowful mooning around, as the kids examine their consciences.

The debut by writer-director Jacob Aaron Estes, Mean Creek has a few too many clichés both of small-town drama and of indie cinema in general (the poignant, revealing home video, the lashings of bland college-radio rock). It comes across as a film equivalent of the "challenging' young-adult novel, but it's well crafted, at moments arrestingly intense, and the young cast is terrific: in particular, expect more from Josh Peck, who makes George in turns loathsome, charming and downright hilarious.

'The Big Red One: Reconstruction' is out tomorrow on Cannes Classics DVD

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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