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At-A-Glance Film Reviews

The Big Red One (1980)



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Samuel Fuller made possibly his most personal film with The Big Red One, an episodic World War II film based partially on his own experiences in the war. Lee Marvin, the star of the film, was also a veteran. Fuller fought the studio to use him. The studio wanted John Wayne, but Fuller was more interested in Marvin's experience and not at all in the heroic war movies Wayne was known for.

I respect Fuller's ambitions, but I don't know that he pulled it off. Though some of the more outrageous sequences in the film are apparently derived from life, they don't always feel convincing. More problematic is that the episodes in the film feel cherry-picked to drive home a point, namely that war is absurd. It's not what's in the film that rings falsely but what isn't.

Moment after moment feels artificially manufactured for the sake of irony. Consider the film's opening scene, in which Lee Marvin kills a German officer hours after World War I has officially ended. Fine, but then the scene is repeated with the same character hours after the end of World War II. It's a little too pat.

Then there is a scene where soldiers take over an insane asylum, and unnecessarily direct remarks are made juxtaposing the supposedly insane inmates with the supposedly sane rules of engagement. Following a scene where a woman gives birth inside a tank, another unnecessarily direct remark, this time from the narrator: "We got a bunch of medals -- not for delivering the kid but for killing Krauts." One scene after another is like this. Ultimately it doesn't matter if the anecdotes in the film really happened or not. It doesn't feel real. It feels like someone trying to sell you something.