Tuesday, 11 August 2020

Movie Review: The Big Red One (1980)

A soldier's eye view of World War Two, The Big Red One captures the insane logic of front-line combat with unblinking clarity.

In a prologue set at the end of the first World War, a private (Lee Marvin) lost in the front line mists uses his knife to kill a babbling German soldier. He later learns the war ended four hours prior.

It's November 1942, and now the Sergeant leads a squad of infantrymen as part of the famed "Big Red One" (the First Infantry Division), landing on the beaches of North Africa. The men include Privates Griff (Mark Hamill), Zab (Robert Carradine), Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco) and Ward (Johnson). A chaotic initial encounter with Vichy French soldiers is followed by the squad being literally run over at Kasserine Pass.

Under the Sergeant's quiet leadership the four men grow from raw recruits to experienced survivors, while a succession of replacement soldiers come and go. Griff always finds it difficult to shoot anyone while Zab collects plenty of material for his book, as the men take part in the Sicily campaign, followed by the D-Day landings, the Battle of the Bulge and the liberation of a concentration camp. Along the way they encounter the range of horrors and absurdities inherent in war.

A long-standing passion project for writer and director Samuel Fuller, The Big Red One is inspired by his real-life experiences with the First Infantry Division during the war. Adding further authenticity, star Lee Marvin also served in the Pacific Theater with the Marines. The film salutes the foot soldiers doing the dirty work of combat, with a focus on their absolute ordinariness. A relatively low-budget effort with limited attention to detail, the film is focused and gritty, but without expansive set-pieces or blood-soaked brutality.

The four men under the Sergeant's tutelage never lose a sense of fatalistic cynicism, combined with a ready ability to banter and poke each other. The longer they survive and others don't, the more they attain the surety of a job that needs to be done, another battle to grind through on the way to ending a seemingly endless conflict.

The Sergeant himself is an observant man of few words, leading by example and prompting action at key moments. His mere grizzled presence is enough to inspire, and while the men pull the Sergeant into their repartee, he commands instant respect when needed.

The film's episodic structure ensures a constant flow of energy. Fuller briskly hops from one set-piece to another with sharp editing and no looking back. Generals, politicians and broader strategic contexts have no place in this world. The men often have no real idea where they are or why they are there. They just respond to the next tactical objective, taking out any Germans they encounter and improvising an approximation of survival.

The best episodes reach out and touch war's ridiculous incongruities. The squad bring life to a field of death familiar to the Sergeant, helping a pregnant woman deliver inside a tank. An impromptu food and wine feast breaks out while a young local boy, who helped locate an enemy tank, mourns his decomposing mother. And war mixes with madness, literally, when the Sergeant and his men liberate a monastery being used as a refuge for mental patients, with a lethal resistance fighter pretending to be an inmate. The climax at the concentration camp is the final growing-up lesson for young men defeating tyranny.

The Big Red One recreates the front lines as a surreal experience where life, death, humour, camaraderie and work objectives still exist, but are contorted into a magnificently warped mosaic.



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