The Air of Authenticity
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 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 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.
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.
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.