I saw Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One on the very first day of its initial theatrical release in 1980. My auteurist passion for Fuller has never wavered, but I did not see The Big Red One again until today, a quarter-century after my initial viewing, when I finally got to see the reconstructed version, released last year with 45 minutes or so of additional footage.
There were only two scenes that I remembered from my initial viewing. There’s the moment when a solider has been exploded by a mine, and Lee Marvin’s crusty sergeant picks up a bloody mass of flesh and hurls it away, telling the soldier that this is one of his balls, and he should feel lucky that nature gave him two. And there’s the near-climax when Marvin’s unit liberates a German concentration camp, and a soldier opens a door and stares numbly into one of the ovens (we aren’t shown much of the horror, but mostly just this sublimely inexpressive reaction shot).
The Big Red One is an utterly amazing film, though it isn’t necessarily even Fuller’s best war movie. (That would probably be The Steel Helmet; Merrill’s Marauders is also first-rate). But as a World War II epic, it clearly transcends most of the genre — both its many predecessors, and such subsequent films as Spielberg’s meretricious Saving Private Ryan, and even Terence Malick’s sublime The Thin Red Line. Lee Marvin is great — his world-weariness even exceeds his toughness — and the rest of the ensemble cast is convincingly grim. The film says a lot about The Horrors of War — at the end, the narrator tells us that the only glory in warfare is survival.
The Big Red One, like many of Fuller’s films, combines often corny dialogue, amazing camerawork, and an over-the-top narrative audacity. The first half of the film is dominated by gripping battle scenes, alternating between tight close-ups and chaotic (but actually finely controlled) long shots. These scenes are grueling, but somewhat distanced by Fuller’s adherence to familiar genre conventions. (It was evidently Spielberg’s ambition in the opening Omaha Beach sequence of Ryan to surpass Fuller, which I guess he does in technical terms, and also in intensity by dint of sheer relentlessness, but Fuller still seems to me to be superior in terms of affective resonance).
But perhaps “adherence to familiar genre conventions” is not quite right. Fuller blows up genre conventions to monstrous proportions, and makes explicit what the genre usually keeps as subtext. Thus in an early scene, during an amphibious landing, the soldiers protect their rifles from the water by covering them with condoms. Homoeroticism is always close to the surface, and nearly every verbal reference to sex, or narrative suggestion of the soldiers possibly being able to have sex, is followed almost instantly by an unexpected attack, so that battle is figured repeatedly as coitus interruptus.
As the film progresses, things become increasingly bizarre, surreal, and absurdist. Straight battle sequences give way to insane, floridly operatic scenarios: the GIs must help a boy bury his mother, whose stinking corpse is being donkey-carted through the Sicilian countryside; the Germans stage an elaborate ambush by pretending to be already dead, in order to lure the US soldiers off guard, but the Americans kill them anyway; a French woman whose husband has just been killed gives birth inside a tank (the medic puts condoms on all his fingers in lieu of sanitary gloves); an elaborate infiltration/shoot-out takes place in an insane asylum. There are also spooky scenes like a gun battle in the forest, with the fog so thick that nobody can see whom they are shooting at, or who is shooting at them.
Fuller famously expressed scorn for the idea that a war movie could ever be “realistic.” He said that the only realistic war movie would be one in which a machine gun behind the screen would fire directly at the audience. (It’s not surprising, in Fuller’s terms, that Spielberg combines a claim to depict war realistically with an uncritical recapitulation of all the cliches about heroism, etc., that Fuller is rather concerned to demystify). So The Big Red One does not strive for realism; rather, it suggests precisely that war stands so far outside the parameters of everyday experience, and of livability, that it can only be represented as being profoundly “unrealistic.” It cannot, and does not, make normative sense: and its absurdity is something that Fuller’s soldiers respond to with little more than a stoic shrug of the shoulders. The film is littered with corpses, and Marvin walks among them with a grim refusal, or failure, to react. He repeats the mantra that killing is different from murder: we kill the enemy just as we kill animals. But his conscience is tormented by the repeated scenario of killing an enemy after the armistice, which makes it murder after all.
The result is a film of powerfully skewed affect. You feel numbness rather than horror, but this numbness is itself highly charged (if that isn’t too outrageous an oxymoron). The film creates a kind of schizophrenic derealization: an estrangement-effect that paralyzes the intellect instead of energizing it. The result is a kind of stunned disengagement, which is also on a meta-level a kind of positive engagement, only with an impossible, strictly unthinkable, situation. This is, I think, the anti-fascist way of “aestheticizing” war, a phenomenon that I hope never to encounter outside of the movies.