big red one poster

5 Things To Love About The Big Red One

The Air of Authenticity

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Robert Carradine’s cigar chomping writer Zab is the clear stand in for Samuel Fuller.

This is a semi-autobiographical movie.  Samuel Fuller served in the First Infantry Division during World War II.  He sprinkles all kinds of little details–for example the use of condoms on rifle barrels to prevent sea water from corroding the interior– that a director with less experience, and concern for the material would likely ignore.  I must mention this, because a lot of people get this one wrong. During the concentration camp scene, Mark Hamill empties his rifle off screen, 16 shots ringing out.  I’ve seen several self-appointed experts say that it was unrealistic because an M-1 Garand holds 8 in the clip.  However if you listen closely, you will count 8 shots, hearing the brass casing strike the floor after each shot, then a slightly different metal ping–this is from the steel stripper clip automatically ejecting after the magazine is emptied–followed by the action being closed on a new clip, then Hamill firing another 8 shots.  There is a reload that can be identified just through listening to the sound!    A fun side note: every year on June 6th to mark the anniversary of the Big Red One’s triumph on D-Day, John Ford would call Fuller, scream “Fuck the Big Red One!” and slam down the telephone.  Ford was a Navy man after all.

Lee Marvin

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Marvin and the squad face off against a sniper in Sicily.

Lee Marvin brings authenticity of his own to this project.  Marvin served in the Marine Corps and recieved a medical discharge after having his sciatic nerve severed by a Japanese bullet during combat on Saipan in 1944.  Marvin’s seargent is about as noble a portrayal of a nco as you will find–a squad leader that shows fatherly concern for his boys (calling them his wetnoses) and does all he can to convince them they are in the right and “you’re going to live, even if I have to blow your brains out.”  The sarge has a certain humanity with him, particularly when dealing with children, that lends a heart to the film.  This is illustrated by scenes in Sicily, in Germany, and Czechoslovakia.  Marvin did cite this film as the favorite war movie he acted in.

The Absurdity

The great Japanese director Seijun Suzuki (who had been drafted into the Japanese army, and survived transport ships being sunk from under him, twice) once said “[W]ar is very funny, you know! When you’re in the middle of it, you can’t help laughing.”  From the looks of it, Fuller likely agreed.  All you have to watch is the baby delivery scene.  I loose it every time.  Fuller grasped that the comic absurdity can be used to accentuate the poignancy and that scene is as good an example as I can think of.  There is wry gallows humor sprinkled throughout, such as Zab’s explanation of tactics “You know how you smoke out a sniper? You send a guy out in the open and you see if he gets shot. They thought that one up at West Point.”  Every time I watch this movie, I find it funnier.

 

The Interactions

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Sarge is presented with his helmet covered in flowers by a Sicilian girl.

One thing that separates great war movies from mediocre ones is the quiet moments.  The lulls in the action must be filled out with interaction between the men, and Fuller’s Big Red One is exceptional in that regard.  On top of this, of the World War II movies I can think of, this film has the most interaction between G.I.s and civilians.  In particular the interactions with the children in Sicily stands out.  My favorite that combines both aspects is Zab’s (Robert Carradine) planning of the party and trying to communicate with the matronly Belgian lady what he wants the girls to do…a wonderful illustration of brotherhood among the squad and the humor of the linguistic divide.

Fuller’s Flourishes

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Iconic image from the World War I opening.

Samuel Fuller interjects some really great images into this film.  In particular, the corpse with a broken watch in the bloody tide on D-Day.   Perhaps his greatest flourishes are in the narrative structure of the film.  Fuller chose to open the film with Marvin’s character at the end of World War I, and closes the film with a parallel scene.  Fuller also chose to include the Siegfried Rauch character, a battle hardened German seargent to both parallel and contrast with Marvin.  This reveals a good part of Fuller’s message–wherever, whenever you fight, war is the same, and “surviving is the only glory in war.”

I’ll leave it at that for now.

pat billy

5 Things To Love About Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid (1973)

For my first post I’m doing an under-appreciated classic western, and a film I consider the definition of flawed masterpiece.  That’s why I describe it as a film I love–much like actual love it’s as much about accepting the flaws as it is about the adoring the merits.  But we’re here to talk about the merits (though a flaw or two will surely creep in).  Anyway, here we go…

The Dialogue

Though sometimes uneven, Peckinpah’s talent for western dialogue is in full display.  In fact, I think this is the best dialogue in any western I’ve ever seen.  Examples:

  • “Yo’ant yo’self a wo-man?… One come in there from Albuquerque around the cat house over… name is Bertha… got a ass on her like a forty dollar cow ‘n’ a tit – I’d like to see that thing filled full o’ tequila. You know something? You can’t beat that, can ya’?”
  • “I got my shotgun full of 16 thin dimes. Enough to spread you out like a crazy woman’s quilt.”
  • “Why don’t you take your money, shove it up your ass, and set fire to it?”

I could go on, but I won’t for risk of spoiling some of the films payoffs.  So moving on…

Not One, But Two Folk Legends In Acting Roles

kris and bob

Various incarnations of the script/studio/director had others musicians in lead roles, including James Taylor and John Denver.  Peckinpah had originally wanted Bo Hopkins (The Wild Bunch) to play Billy but it did not pan out.  A newcomer to acting, Kris Kristofferson had three previous film roles (starring in 1972’s Cisco Pike) but what he lacked in onscreen experience he made up for with a wealth of performance experience, charm and charisma galore.  Donnie Fritts, a member of his backing band was also brought in to round out Billy’s gang.  But the really interesting addition is a certain Bob Dylan.  Peckinpah had originally wanted Roger Miller to do the soundtrack for the film, but Kristofferson suggested instead his friend Dylan.  Peckinpah had never heard Dylan before so Kristofferson arranged for a private concert at Sam’s house.  Peckinpah was impressed and signed Dylan on not only for the soundtrack, but created the role of Alias for him to get some screen time–his first film appearance.  Kristofferson shines as Billy, providing a playful likability necessary to create an attachment to the character.  And Bob Dylan kills a man by throwing a knife into his throat.

Peckinpah’s Signature Violence

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They didn’t call him “Bloody Sam” for nothing.  Peckinpah is THE guy who made slow motion and freeze frame violence a thing, flavoring his films liberally with these techniques to enhance the impact of paint can size squibs.  Though not to the degree of The Wild Bunch (but really, what is?), there are some outstanding examples of Sam’s flare.  In particular, the opening sequence crosscuts the death of Pat Garrett in 1909 with a flashback shooting contest of the Kid and his gang in 1881.  There is also the expertly executed payoff to the shotgun loaded with 16 thin dimes mentioned above.  And I cannot spoil the scene, because it is one of my favorite scenes in any western, but there a shoot out where one of Garrett’s men takes one to the gut and stumbles off to die.

The Beauty

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This is probably Sam’s most beautiful film.  He uses water as a bit of a motif, all the more striking because of the arid setting of the film.  There is a great shot of Garrett riding his horse at sunset with the shadows reflected in the water.  There is the aforementioned death scene of one of his compadres set next to a river as the sky clouds over.  There is a brilliant scene of Garrett camping next to the river and playing a little game with a man on a raft drifting by.  The use of water and sunset lends an autumnal feel to the film, underscoring Peckinpah’s tragic version of the oft-told tale–a man (Garrett) must compromise his beliefs to survive in changing times by killing a friend (Billy) who refuses to compromise his vision.

The Heart

Finally, the biggest reason to love this film is the heart.  Not many westerns have an emotional core–Leone’s feature cool but very amoral/immoral characters that one doesn’t particularly relate to–but Peckinpah’s westerns always do.  The crushing moral dilemma mentioned above plays out in a way such that it’s as much Garrett killing himself–or the better part of himself–as it is him killing the Kid.  The Kid is very likable, even while being very violent, and we relate to Garrett’s position, especially when we look upon life with older eyes.

There’s a lot more this film offers, but I’ll leave it at that.